Tornado-torn town rebuilds with eco-friendly priorities
- Jun. 19, 2012
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At first, Greensburg looks similar to the many small towns you would pass through on U.S. Highway 54.
But there are also barren patches of land, many of them dotted with dilapidated homes, shacks and abandoned farm equipment. And scattered among the handful of these blank blocks are newly built homes, strangely juxtaposed against the remaining wreckage of a tornado that leveled nearly all of Greensburg five years ago. The town is still here because of a massive amount of support from countless individuals since the disaster. But the town hasn’t just been rebuilt — Greensburg has been re-envisioned. Bob Dixson, mayor of Greensburg, is certainly proud of how far the town has come, but he doesn’t consider the mission complete.
“We want to keep growing,” said Dixson, 58. “We can never ‘be done,’ because you’re either growing or you’re dying. There’s no staying put in one place.”
On May 4, 2007, an EF5 (the most damaging category, with winds over 200 mph) tornado struck Greensburg, a 1.5 square-mile town in south-central Kansas, 110 miles west of Wichita. The tornado was approximately 1.7 miles across, wide enough to encompass the small town of about 1,400 people. National Weather Service estimated the tornado’s wind speed to be 205 mph. Eleven people died and 95 percent of the town was completely destroyed. The only historic building downtown to survive was the S.D. Robinett Building, today an antique shop.
A sergeant for the Kiowa County Police Department, Zane Huffman, was on duty the night of the storm, helping clear the trashed roads. Huffman, 48, knew where his children were at the time of the tornado, but had no way of contacting them — cell phone reception was shot within the city limits. People searching for loved ones immediately after the tornado were forced to drive to nearby Haviland or Mullinville and attempt calls to friends and family, but the disabled phone service in Greensburg made it unlikely for anyone within the city to receive the calls. Navigating the streets was impossible, so it was out of the question to physically search for anyone in the aftermath.
“You couldn’t get anywhere,” Huffman said of the debris-ridden streets. “I tried calling the next morning when I was off duty, but couldn’t get ahold of them. I didn’t see or talk to my two kids until the next afternoon.”
Houses were in pieces in the street, personal belongings strewn among splintered wood and shattered glass. Kathleen Sebelius, Kansas governor then, announced her plan for Greensburg to become the “greenest city in the state.” The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were immediately deployed, along with volunteers from throughout the country. Greensburg began the slow but steady healing process.
FEMA, EPA and Greensburg officials created an immediate recovery plan and a long-term recovery plan, the latter containing most of the “green” initiatives. Perhaps the most important immediate goal, aside from cleanup, was FEMA’s building of 300 trailers over the first two years, to assist residents moving back into town (it was eventually dubbed “FEMAville,” among a handful of other nicknames). The agency also set up trailers over the summer to serve as classrooms for the start of school in August.
Teigan Ellegood, now an eighth-grader at Kiowa County Junior High in Greensburg, didn’t live in town when the tornado hit, but his family uprooted and moved from a nearby town right away to join in the recovery effort. Ellegood’s family had lost everything in a house fire four years before the 2007 Greensburg tornado. Ellegood, 15, says it was his mother’s decision.
“She knew what it was like to lose everything,” he said.
The family slept on the floor of a nearby church, crammed alongside displaced families, when they arrived in Greensburg the month after the tornado. Ellegood attended fifth grade in a trailer that fall — most trailers housed two grades, from kindergarten through twelfth.
“Most of the kids I talked to on the first day of school were relieved,” Ellegood says. “They didn’t think they’d have an education that year.”
But many people didn’t return to Greensburg after the tornado. The town lost about half its population to emigration — the population is currently about 777. Residents claimed their insurance money and moved away — the rebuilding process was too tedious and expensive for many.
Over time, natural beauty has grown in and around the remaining ruins. And the town isn’t ashamed of or hiding the telltale signs of the major disaster. An old auto-repair garage has, “Open as soon as we can,” endearingly spray-painted on its side facing the highway.
The town doesn’t look like your typical rural Kansas town, especially one that was destroyed by a tornado five years ago. Most prominently, there are ten large wind turbines three miles outside of town and smaller turbines throughout the city. Many of the municipal buildings near the center of town are sleek, modern structures you might find in Seattle or Tokyo (Mayor Dixson likens the rooftop solar panels to skate park ramps). But they aren’t designed this way for style.
Greensburg was the first U.S. town to achieve LEED Platinum ratings for all its city-owned buildings. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum is the highest rating a building can receive under the U.S. Green Building Council’s rating system. Greensburg has the most LEED-certified buildings per capita in the world, making it a global model for researchers, students and developers in the sustainable energy field.
The impressive SunChips Business Incubator (perhaps Greensburg’s most practical and progressive addition) is a key component to the town’s long-term recovery plan. SunChips donated $1 million toward the building’s design and execution, and Leonardo DiCaprio chipped in another $400,000. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Greensburg covered the rest.
The building offers five street-level retail spaces and nine second-level offices as well as a storm shelter. The incubator, completed two years after the tornado, is city-owned and LEED Platinum-certified. The sustainable features make it easier for new local businesses to get off the ground and “hatch out” into the city to survive on their own, as Mayor Dixson puts it.
Photovoltaic solar panels on the roof provide 10 percent of the incubator’s energy quota. Specifically-angled skylights and strategically-arranged window patterns equate to easily accessible free daylight — artificial lights are controlled by motion sensors so that unoccupied rooms are automatically darkened. Water drained down sinks and showers is collected and used to flush toilets. 23 geothermal wells pull air, 56 degrees Fahrenheit, from 30 feet underground to cool in the summer and heat in the winter. The underground air sits at 56 degrees year-round, so heating and cooling costs are cheaper and more consistent.
The list goes on, and most of these features are common among the LEED Platinum buildings in Greensburg: the school, the 5.4.7 Arts Center (designed and constructed by 22 KU architecture students in the Studio 804 graduate design program), the BTI John Deere dealership, the hospital and Prairie Pointe Townhomes. But all of these significant changes to the landscape don’t erase the fact that a tornado destroyed Greensburg and that it could happen again.
Ray Stegman, Greensburg’s emergency manager, said earlier this spring the whole town immediately disappeared underground and into shelters at the first news of a tornado warning.
I think the biggest thing people miss is the trees. It’s probably the biggest thing for me, personally. Everyone used to sit in their backyard under the shade and hang out, but there just aren’t that many trees here anymore.”
Stegman, who worked for local law enforcement for 16 years before the 2007 tornado, was asked by the city to be emergency manager just two days after the tornado. He immediately picked up the duties of organizing cleanups, helping FEMA set up trailers and whatever else he was asked to do.
The city administration has fought an uphill battle since May 2007, overcoming economic, environmental and even political obstacles.
Once Greensburg was established as a burgeoning “green” community, conferences for disaster recovery and sustainable planning began inviting Mayor Dixson to share his story of Greensburg’s transformation from a pile of rubble into a worldwide model for sustainable communities. At one such conference, a sustainable energy expert asked Dixson why the town decided to rebuild in the first place, considering the tornado left practically nothing behind and the town was “in the middle of nowhere.”
“It was never a question for any of us — whether we should rebuild,” Dixson said. “For one, it’s our home, our town. And secondly, Greensburg isn’t in the middle of nowhere. It’s in the middle of
Edited by Kelsey Cipolla