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3 years later, Greensburg truly greener

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, May 4, 2010, at 12:02 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, July 18, 2012, at 8:28 a.m.

Only minutes before he was scheduled to speak to the Rotary Club at Botanica on Monday, the tornado sirens in Wichita began blaring as part of their weekly test.

Greensburg City Administrator Steve Hewitt's mind instinctively flashed back to the wailing sirens that warned of an approaching tornado that would wipe Greensburg from the map after sunset three years ago today.

"I think everyone who was in Greensburg can't hear a tornado siren now without thinking about what happened that night," Hewitt said.

The EF5 tornado, which was 1 3/4 miles wide and struck Greensburg shortly before 10 p.m., killed 11 people in Greensburg. Tornadoes that touched down later killed three more people.

Yet Hewitt's message on Monday was of rebirth, not ruin.

While there is still so much to be done as the small central Kansas town continues its resurrection in the wake of the most devastating tornadoes in the state's history, he said, it's important to realize just how far Greensburg has come.

"Greensburg's becoming known more for its recovery than the tornado," Hewitt said. "When I talk to the people at FEMA, I ask, 'How are we doing?' They tell me 'You're doing amazing.' "

It's easy to lose sight of that in the day-to-day challenges of recovery, he said, when people can be all too quick to point out how much has yet to be done.

"Some people have forgotten," he said. "When we hear... 'Why is it taking so long?' I try to tell people, 'It's only been three years, and our complete community was absolutely devastated.' "

Greensburg had to rebuild from the ground up — including water and sewer lines.

"Greensburg was desperate," Hewitt said. "When you're desperate is when you truly have an opportunity to change your thinking.

"But change is very scary."

The recovery is far from complete. Though the grocery store, City Hall and hospital have re-opened and the new school is set to open in August, the town is still smaller than it was prior to the tornado.

Perhaps 900 people live there now, he said, compared with about 1,300 before.

But building permits continue to come in, he said, and businesses are taking a look at Greensburg.

"The year before the storm, nobody was calling my office to talk about jobs," Hewitt said. "We now have calls that come in weekly.

"I'm in the game," he said. "Greensburg is a player now. We're offering something different."

Successes

A small-business incubator downtown has proven so successful that a second structure offering larger spaces has been built across the street, Hewitt said. Three businesses have moved from the incubator to the new building, and the space they left behind has been filled by others.

"It's a new Greensburg being reborn," Hewitt said.

A wind farm five miles south of town provides all of the city's energy. Every streetlight in the city uses LED lighting, which cuts energy use and operating and maintenance costs by 70 percent.

Rainwater is being captured in cisterns and used to water plants and trees. Reclaimed bricks have been used in the downtown streetscape and in the new City Hall.

"We took our time," he said. "We created a plan that was sustainable and good for our future.

"We didn't want to just put a Band-Aid on this thing. We wanted to fix it and make it better."

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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