Rebuilding Greensburg Green

Everyone assumed this Kansas town was destined to fade away. What would it take to reverse its course?

(Fredric Heeren)

The sirens started blaring at 9:15 p.m., May 4, 2007. School supervisor Darin Headrick was returning from his son's track meet and decided to get to the safety of his friends' basement nearby, which was also a good excuse for a visit with them. "Usually you get a lot of wind and rain and hail," Headrick says. "And then a little tornado touches down in a couple places. It's not a big deal." But when they felt their ears pop with a sudden change of air pressure—ten times worse than what you feel in an airplane, according to Headrick, "we looked at each other and went: 'Oh no, this isn't good.'"

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Amid the sound of shattering glass, they ran to a corner bedroom in the basement, shut the door in the darkness, and tried to cover the children on the floor. "From the time we shut the door until the house was gone was probably thirty seconds. There was nothing but storm and sky above." After the tornado passed, Headrick climbed up the rubble to peek out from the top of the basement. "When the lightning flashed we could see little rope tornados," he says, "just a couple skinny ones on the east side of town that were pretty close."

Then he and a few neighbors heard a woman next door yelling: "I'm in here! Help my baby! Please get my baby!" That house had had no basement. The woman had hidden in a closet with her baby as rafters splintered, bricks tossed, and the family car flew overhead, spattering the baby with its transmission fluid. The walls had collapsed over them.

Hedrick and the others rushed over and shined their flashlight on a little foot; they pulled away more boards and bricks until they could lift out the infant.

"And the baby wasn't crying," Headrick recalls, "just big eyes looking up like: 'man, where you been?'" They were relieved to figure out that the red all over the child wasn't blood, just transmission fluid; the mother was bruised but able to walk away with them.

"We just thought it was these five or six houses on the south end of town that got hit, because it was dark and raining and we couldn't see anything." It wasn't until they and other people started walking into town that they realized ... there was no town.

Typical tornados cover about 75 yards of ground at a time. The monster that chugged north along Main Street was 1.7 miles wide at its base, smashing or blowing away everything between the east and west edges of the 2-mile-wide town.

Twelve people died from the town of 1,400. About 95 percent of the homes were destroyed. Headrick's school, the hospital and the John Deere dealership were gone.

The next night, a smaller storm passed through the region. People still in town met in the basement of the courthouse, the only structure that still offered some protection. Gathering together with the mayor and city officials to talk about Greensburg's survival was not exactly a novel experience for these folks. Like most small Midwestern towns, Greensburg had been losing jobs, entertainment, and population—especially young people, with the school population cut in half in recent decades. According to Headrick, "we were probably destined to the same outcome every other small rural town is, and that is, you're going to dry up and blow away." Why bother rebuilding? "We thought: What can we do that gives our community the best chance to survive in the long term? What would make people want to move to our community?"

No one is sure who first voiced the green idea, because it occurred to many people simultaneously. They could leave to start over elsewhere, they could rebuild as before only to watch their town slowly die—or, as Bob Dixson, who has since become mayor, says, "we could rebuild in a green, energy-efficient manner that would leave a legacy to future generations." As the conversation gained momentum, the people became excited with their unique opportunity to start from scratch, to live up to their town's name—and perhaps to run an experiment that could lead others into greenness by proving its value.


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