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Greensburg: Greenest Town in America

  • Eric Mack

On May 4, 2007 a gigantic tornado measuring more than 2.5 kilometers wide with winds over 325 kilometers per hour destroyed almost all of Greensburg in southern Kansas, leaving the small town's 1500 residents devastated and wondering what to do next. They came up with a revolutionary idea. Reporter Eric Mack visited the town nine months after the tornado to learn more about the plan to remake Greensburg as the 'greenest town in America.'

Greensburg looks like it was hit by a bomb. The streets are lined with empty foundations. A set of steps leads to where a house once was, but there's nothing there. Trees are just stumps, with no branches on them. All the residents have been relocated to rows of emergency government trailers on the far side of town.

Greensburg City Manager Steve Hewitt recalls the week after the storm, when he had a number of conversations with officials about how to rebuild. "[We said,] 'This is the opportunity now to make this town the way it needs to be. We can start fresh - new buildings, new parks. We can do everything like we never could before.'" When Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius visited in the wake of the tornado, she said 'going green' was perfect for a town called Greensburg.

So Hewitt and other city leaders decided to seize the opportunity and rebuild Greensburg as a model green community: energy-efficient, low carbon-emitting, sustainable, and powered, at least in part, by the forces of nature that once reduced it to rubble.

Hewitt says that took some research. "We knew to be green we couldn't build an old diesel power plant back - so what's out here? Well, we've been talking about wind for years, well, that's one aspect, and you can talk about solar and not wasting and geothermal, you can talk about insulation and the way you build."

With so many possibilities, a non-profit organization was formed to help the town make the 'green dream' come true. Daniel Wallach, the director of Greensburg GreenTown, says the response from people and organizations that want to help or have been inspired by the idea has been amazing.

"It's really interesting timing because the slate was wiped clean by the tornado," he explains. "We get to rebuild in a way that really very few communities have." He points out that the Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Labs have invested a great deal of time, money and effort in developing green technologies and they want to see Greensburg be a prototypic community. "So there's lots of sources that see the potential, that are coming and bringing resources to the table."

But that's just the beginning: Discovery Networks and Leonardo DiCaprio are working on a documentary television series about the rebuilding, Mother Earth News is planning to build a model green home in town, and there's even been an unconfirmed rumor that Internet giant Google might be investigating the possibility of constructing a wind-powered data center nearby.

Wallach says all this attention is part of the mission to help spread the "gospel of green." "I see us as being kind of a living science museum, where green technologies, products and services will be demonstrated. We've got a great number of homes that are kind of state-of-the-art energy efficient. People are gonna be able to come from around the country and see a model community of the future."

Sixteen large buildings in town are being built to LEED standards, the criteria for environmentally sustainable construction, set by the U.S. Green Building Council. In December, the Greensburg city council became the first in the nation to pass a resolution that all major municipal buildings be constructed LEED Platinum, the highest standard of efficiency and sustainability. And other local businesses are getting in on the action, too: the General Motors dealership is being rebuilt as a model green dealership, the Baptist Church is coming back LEED Platinum, a senior housing project is pursuing LEED Gold, and the hospital, tractor dealership, banks and numerous others are considering some sort of green reincarnation.

Plenty of local residents have already caught the green building bug as well. Farrell Allison's house was destroyed by the storm and now he's rebuilding near the center of town with some of the latest green-building materials. "That's insulated concrete forms," he says, pointing to the hollow panels of insulating foam ready to be filled in with reinforced concrete to create the house's walls. "[We've] got an R [insulation] value of about 36 on the walls, we're doing geothermal heat in this, low-E windows, double-paned, argon-filled... it's exciting to us."

But not everyone in town is buying into all the hype. About half the customers at the Lunch Box, currently the only restaurant in town, set up in a temporary trailer, either haven't heard of the 'GreenTown' effort, or have no interest in talking about it. Some have moved on to live with family in nearby towns; others are rebuilding the old-fashioned way.

Still, City Manager Hewitt remains cautiously optimistic about the tough task that lies ahead. "Nobody wants to sugar-coat this thing and tell the world everything is perfect in Greensburg, that we woke up one day and ran into no obstacles and rebuilt the town in two years…No, It's going to be a struggle and it's going to be hard, but we have great goals," he insists.

For most of Greensburg, those goals are all they have left. And with the world watching, this town seems well on its way to getting back on its feet after receiving a knock-out punch.

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