Rebuilding Greensburg Green

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

(Fredric Heeren)

(Continued from page 1)

When President Bush visited a few days later, he stood on the debris of the John Deere dealership and asked the co-owner: "What are you going to do?" Mike Estes answered that they were going to rebuild.

Governor Kathleen Sebelius heard that Greensburg was planning to rebuild green. At a Topeka Statehouse news conference, she announced, "we have an opportunity of having the greenest town in rural America." The leaders of Greensburg decided to do one better: They wanted the greenest town in America, rural or urban.

A reporter trying to make sense of this sudden enthusiasm for greenness soon learns that nearly everyone in Greensburg makes the same two points. First, greenness didn't start with city slickers. As Mayor Dixson puts it: "In rural America, we were always taught that if you take care of the land, the land will care of you. Our ancestors knew about solar, about wind, and geothermal with their root cellars to store their crops through the winter. They used windmills to pump water for their cattle. They used water to cool their eggs and their milk. And then they pumped it up above, and the sun heated it and they had a hot shower at night. We've been aware of the concepts in rural America. We knew that you had to be good stewards of the land and the resources. It's just that now we have such advanced technology to take advantage of."

Daniel Wallach, a relative newcomer to the community, had long been passionate about green technologies. When he brought a concept paper to a town meeting a week after the tornado, he found that the people needed no convincing. "These are people who live off the land," says Wallach. "Ranchers and farmers are the original recyclers—they don't waste anything. They innovate and are very ingenious in their responses to problem solving, and all of that is very green."

But couldn't Greensburg have done all this before the tornado? Sure, the seeds of greenness were there all along, but what caused them to sprout now, in particular? That evokes the second motive people keep bringing up: their belief in a higher purpose. They say their search for meaning in the face of disaster has led to their resolution to be better stewards of this world.

"I think it's more than coincidental that this town's name is green," maintains Mike Estes. "I think there's some providential irony here that God had in mind, because that is bringing our town back."

Such sentiments go a long way toward explaining why most Greensburgians show so much resolve. FEMA made it clear from the outset that it could offer advice and financing to replace what was lost, but it could pay nothing toward the extra costs involved in rebuilding green. Tax incentives were minor compared to initial outlays. In large tent meetings attended by 400 of the townspeople at once, the leaders committed to going green regardless.

An architecture and design firm in Kansas City called BNIM showed town leaders what would be required to rebuild according to the U.S. Green Building Council's specifications. And Daniel Wallach helped map out the broader vision: "if we can be that place where people come to see the latest and greatest, we think that that's going to provide the economic base we need, both in terms of tourism and ultimately green businesses locating in Greensburg. I see the town itself being like an expo or science museum, where people come to see the latest and see how it all works."

Twenty-one months later, 900 people have returned so far. Most of them have moved out of the temporary trailers, called FEMA-ville, and most have become experts at rebuilding green. Mike Estes gazes out beyond his rebuilt John Deere building to view the rest of town—which still looks like a disaster zone from most angles, a landscape of tree stumps. Yet, he says, "It's pretty incredible progress that's been made. A lot of that can be credited to going green. It's giving us the momentum that we didn't have before."

And last week, Mayor Dixson sat in the gallery as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama during President Obama's first address to Congress. The President pointed to Greensburg residents "as a global example of how clean energy can power an entire community."


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