Greening Greensburg

ON THE EVENING of May 4, 2007, Greensburg, Kansas, was utterly demolished by a category EF5 tornado. Roaring up from the Texas panhandle, the 1.7-mile-wide monster tore through the town, flattening houses and flinging car parts onto the roof of the grain elevator. Residents had twenty-six minutes’ warning, allowing many of them to scramble for shelter. Nonetheless, the tornado destroyed 95 percent of the town and killed eleven people.



Greensburg was determined to rebuild. The simple way to do it would have been to re-create essentially the same town as before. But despite being physically, emotionally, and economically shattered, residents managed to see the opportunity that followed in the twister’s path. They chose to rebuild not the simplest way, but the best way. Regional activist Daniel Wallach and mayor Lonnie McCollum envisioned how the new Greensburg could become a model of rural sustainability; Kathleen Sebelius, the governor at the time, lent support; and the rest of the town embraced the idea.

Despite its name (the original Green was a nineteenth-century stagecoach driver), Greensburg was no hotbed of eco-activism. It was, and is, a conservative farm town, the seat of rural Kiowa County, where Mitt Romney got 86 percent of the vote. But sustainable rebuilding represents, as the townspeople like to say, “solid midwestern values.” Planning for the future, using water wisely, respecting the land, reducing waste: everyone could get behind those goals, and did. Even people well beyond the city limits of Greensburg contributed money, time, resources, and ideas to help remake the town.

Fast forward to 2013. Greensburg farms the wind for its electricity, selling its surplus back to the grid. Most municipal buildings, including the city hall, school, and hospital, are LEED-certified, and the streets are now lit by LEDs. The town’s business community has bought in as well — the Best Western has its own wind turbine, the LEED-Platinum-certified John Deere dealership stores its waste oil to heat itself in winter, and Centera Bank, also LEED-certified, absorbs stormwater with its own bioswale. People come from all over the world to tour these facilities.

According to Daniel Wallach, interest in the Greensburg model is so strong that GreenTown, the nonprofit organization that leads the tours, has fielded inquiries from hundreds of other towns and is now consulting for many of them. There may only be one Greensburg, Kansas, but the world is full of communities recovering from catastrophe, as well as those taking up the challenge of planning for a smart, sustainable future. They can find that future happening today in Greensburg.

Find more from Orion’s new series, Reimagining Infrastructure, at www.orionmagazine.org/infrastructure.

Emmanuel Dunand is a photographer working with Agence France-Presse. He is based in New York City.

Comments

  1. No question that sustainable models for the future are going to be disaster driven. Thumbs up to Greensburg and I hope because they are so easy to identify with a lot of visiting folks will carry home with them the Greensburg example.

  2. What a great leadership community. I met some of these people and they were living proof that midwest America can look to the future for the benefit of future generations.
    Great example to the world.

  3. This is sensible and terrific work. Am sure that Greensburg also put a number of aspects in place to protect from future tornados but there’s no mention of that. I know nothing about tornados but these buildings look like they’d go down too in the face of one. Please tell me I’m wrong and maybe some of the things they did to address that.

  4. David and lee – It’s a good point that sustainability will be disaster driven. So much of environmental progress has been driven by disaster, or the fear of them. Greensburg, of course, is a model of intelligent resilience. A question for the future, I would say, is how we respond to slow motion disasters, like habitat loss.
    Susan – This is a good question. I did ask the folks from Greensburg about this, and the short answer is that most of the new buildings are built to resist tornadoes, at least to the extent of having safe rooms. The GreenTown office has a fun photo of a crane test-dropping a car on the roof soon after construction – flying debris is the biggest issue in most tornadoes. Of course, if a big enough tornado comes, there’s nothing to be done other than go to the cellar, but the town has taken most reasonable precautions.

  5. I enjoyed the slide show. This transformation was necessitated by a tragedy, but it makes so much sense. Other communities with natural resources to create power to take note.

  6. i didnt think this would take place, let alone in texas where corporations have a great foothold. this will make an excellent example that we can live with nature rather than against it without much discomfort. i hope that people around the world will one day understand that.

  7. Thanks, Marco. I would have to say that corporations have a role to play in comebacks like Greensburg’s – they’re part of why the wind farms, LED streetlights, and other innovations were possible. And while Kansas isn’t the most progressive region of the country, when you get down to it, this stuff makes sense, as Rob says, economically and environmentally.

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  9. It looks like Dr. Moore is indeed doing important work. I must say that this article is not really about climate change – they’ve always had tornados in Kansas. Climate change might make them more violent, but Greensburg’s response would, I think, be just as admirable regardless of global warming.

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