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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Dawn of the Green Economy

Putting the "Green" in Greensburg: A Tornado-Ravaged Town Reinvents Itself

Can a small Kansas town leveled by a twister revive its fortunes by becoming an energy-efficient, eco-conscious community?



EMILY GERTZ/© SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

GREENSBURG, Kan.—On the north side of this Midwestern town, an enormous white grain silo—one of few structures that survived a 2007 tornado—stands watch over construction in the business district along U.S. Route 54.

This commercial strip is still being rebuilt, along with the rest of Greensburg. New low-slung, ranch-style homes line some streets. Others are pocked by weedy open lots studded with "for sale" signs. Stumps dot the landscape, remnants of the once-stately trees that shaded the town.

Slide Show: Take a photo tour of Greensburg

Greensburg's toehold on the wide-open prairie of western Kansas still looks tenuous to an outsider, but locals see things differently. The enormous piles of wreckage left behind by the storm are now gone. To the south, a rebuilt water tower rises. Nearby, the Big Well—the "world's largest hand-dug well" and Greensburg's signature tourist attraction—is open for visitors. After operating the city government for over a year out of two adjoining trailers plunked down on the corner of Pine and Wisconsin streets, a new city hall is set to open this summer.

Like every public building in town, it's being built to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum standard—the U.S. Green Building Council's highest certification for energy efficiency and other ecofriendly qualities. "What we're working towards is an place where young professionals will want to come to Greensburg to be part of our movement," city planner Mike Gurnee says.

Before the tornado, Greensburg—founded in 1886 and named for local stagecoach owner Donald. R. "Cannonball" Green—was a dying rural town of 1,500, losing around two percent of its population every year as agricultural jobs faded away. Afterward, city leaders realized that rebuilding the town from scratch as an energy-efficient, climate-conscious "green town" was an opportunity to save Greensburg. In December 2007, the city council committed to rebuilding all public buildings LEED Platinum.

"We don't feel like we're doing anything extraordinary," says Ruth Ann Wedel, who has lived in Greensburg for about four decades. "But others say we're establishing a model."

The city council's resolution did not apply to privately owned buildings. But several businesses, such as the local John Deere dealership, have risen to the challenge to build back LEED Platinum.  Many locals express heartfelt gratitude for these practical demonstrations of belief in the "new" Greensburg. .

So have some new institutions, such as the $3.4-million "SunChips Business Incubator." To help spark Greenburg's economic revival, the incubator offers low-cost office space and technical assistance to sole practitioners like lawyers and designers as well as entrepreneurial business start-ups. Frito-Lay (a division of PepsiCo) donated $1 million toward the building costs; state and federal funding covered much of the rest; actor Leonardo DiCaprio contributed $400,000.

"Greensburg's tax base was literally blown away," says Jeanette Siemens, the director of economic development for Kiowa County. "Without outside resources, I don't know what we would have done."

The $2.95-million city hall reconstruction offers a case study in how Greensburg's eco-conscious civic revival is being financed. Along with private donations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Rural Development program made a $900,000 grant for the project; $1,188,525 came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); $185,803, from the city itself; and $282,000 from insurance proceeds. The Kansas Division of Emergency Management committed $158,469 to the project. (Although the state may retract some funding commitments due to a severe budget crunch, reports indicate that with completion so near, this is unlikely to derail the building's completion.)

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.

***

Many eyes are on Greensburg's progress—both here and abroad. City Administrator Steve Hewitt testified last June before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming on overcoming the resistance of some government agencies to building back green. Greensburg officials, including Dixson, even traveled to China's Sichuan Province last December to begin an "eco-partnership" with Mianzhu, a city destroyed in last year's catastrophic earthquake.

"We can learn about how China is dealing with growth, with industry," Hewitt says. "Maybe they can learn from our green master plan."

Hewitt envisions Greensburg stabilizing at a population of 3,000 to 5,000—big enough to be economically and culturally viable, yet small enough to retain the advantages of a rural community: "walkability, connectivity and quality of life," he says.

By the standards of independent-minded western Kansans, the green rebuilding process has involved an unusual degree of meetings and group decision-making. This was "outside a lot of people's comfort zone," Ruth Ann Wedel says. "Not everyone loves it. But gradually a lot of people have come around.... For those who've decided to stay and be involved, it's created a more tight-knit community."

Although the tornado destroyed the three-year-old deli/catering/grocery business Wedel operated with her husband, both the past and the future compelled them to stay. "My husband grew up here, his father is still here," 61-year-old Wedel says. And "it was exciting to think of the possibilities" of the rebuilding.

Wedel now works as "an all-around staffer" with Greensburg GreenTown, a nonprofit developing a chain of "eco-homes." Each will demonstrate different designs and technologies, to attract tourists who want to book stays and experience ecofriendly living. The group is funded by donations, ranging from over $50,000 from Caroma, an Australian manufacturer of water-saving toilets, to dozens of individuals sending in $25 or less. Its first project, the "Silo Eco-Home," is being sponsored by private and corporate donors, including Florida-based Armour Homes, Caroma and others. The group has also channeled donations of green building supplies to Greensburg residents. "I'm sort of their power broker," Wedel says. "I know people here and what they need."

Dixson knows that an influx of new residents and businesses attracted by the town's green vision, however welcome, will alter the character of Greensburg. He doesn't describe the change in conventional political terms, such as conservative versus liberal. Rather, a more individualistic, less environmentally conscientious way of life will have to give way to a more resource-conscious, collaborative approach.

It's not even a question of past versus future, Dixson says; enviro-sense is not out of character for Kansans. "We're so aware of our environment here in rural America, especially when you talk about energy and water use," he says. "We in the Midwest—our ancestors have always known about that."

Greensburg's mayor never utters the words "global warming," but he is clearly aware that with so many eyes on Greensburg, what the town does next will matter well beyond its limits. "We know we have been called to an awesome responsibility," Dixson says. "We know we are the new pioneers in the sustainable green movement."

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