As for funding the homeowners, FEMA reimbursed the uninsured, but only to replace what they lost, not to improve it. For many who stayed and rebuilt, low-interest loans from the federal Small Business Administration and the Rural Development program made up much of the rest.
Of the town's post-twister population of 900 or so residents, many embraced energy-efficiency: More than half the 250-odd rebuilt homes in Greensburg use about 40 percent less energy than a typical home built before the calamity, according to Lynn Billman of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL) in Golden, Col., who has been leading an agency effort to advise the town. "It's an opportunity to think about energy when rebuilding after a disaster," Billman says. "The costs [of rebuilding] might go up a bit, but energy savings go up more."
Billman thinks the kinds of things Greensburg is doing could make a real difference: After all, in the U.S. buildings and their construction generate 43 percent of the nation's climate-altering CO2 emissions as well as consume 76 percent of its electricity. The economic downturn has made it harder to predict the rate of new construction in coming years. But foot for foot, the environmental impacts of buildings are likely to remain the same, unless Greensburg's experiment becomes the norm.
Greensburg "sees this as their key to the future," says Billman's colleague John Holton, an architect and engineer who was on the ground for weeks after the tornado, offering guidance on energy-efficient rebuilding. "And it could well be."
Greensburg Mayor Bob Dixson believes building green is not just the right thing to do environmentally; it will also help Greensburg grow and prosper, by attracting clean-tech companies offering jobs that will keep kids in town after graduation. He believes it will induce young professionals to settle down and raise families in the town, as well. "Green collar jobs—technology, manufacturing—Greensburg can be a living lab to display their products in use," says Dixson, a native Kansan who became the town's mayor last May.
Dixson won't say which companies he's talking to, citing delicate negotiations, offering simply that there are a number of clean technology companies considering Greensburg as a location. He is worried, of course, that the nation's economic slump may put a crimp on the town's plans.
Still, Greensburg scored a win in late May when AgriBoard Industries agreed to locate a new, roughly 60,000-square-foot factory in the town. The company manufactures pre- fabricated building panels made from highly compressed straw, which can be used as load-bearing walls that simultaneously provide excellent insulation and hurricane resistance. According to the Wichita Eagle newspaper, the city council is offering the company 25 acres of land, to become free after 10 years, and will issue around $12 million in industrial bonds to help finance the project. Once financing is in place, it should take about seven months to build the factory.
Before Agriboard's original factory in Electra, Texas burnt down in April, the company employed over 40 workers, and anticipated $18 million in sales in 2009. Major customers included Wells Fargo, Wachovia, and the U.S. Postal Service.
Greensburg itself is going into green business as well. It expects to break ground this summer on a 10-turbine, 12.5-megawatt wind farm, and to have it in operation by 2010. The wind farm will generate enough power to supply 4,000 homes. That's more than enough for Greensburg, which will sell the excess energy back to the grid. Iowa-based John Deere Renewable Energy will build and operate the turbines; Kansas Power Pool, a municipal power cooperative, will purchase the electricity; and NativeEnergy, Inc., will market and sell renewable energy credits from the project as carbon offsets, with the proceeds going to Greensburg.