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Greensburg shares lessons of rebuilding

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, July 4, 2011, at 12:08 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, July 18, 2012, at 8:28 a.m.

They have been trekking from the east to a small town in central Kansas in search of guidance. In search of wisdom.

Representatives from several cities hammered by twisters during the deadliest tornado season in decades have been coming to Greensburg in recent weeks to learn how it rebuilt after being all but wiped from the map by a massive tornado on May 4, 2007.

A delegation from Tuscaloosa, Ala., came in early June for a tour and a series of meetings. Last week, representatives from the Joplin area and cities in northeast Mississippi and rural Alabama converged on Greensburg as well.

Tuscaloosa, Joplin and Smithfield, Miss., have all been hit by EF-5 tornadoes this spring, and numerous EF-4s struck cities in Mississippi and Alabama.

"When I see what went on in Alabama, northeast Mississippi and then Joplin, your heart just drops because you know what they're going through," Greensburg Mayor Bob Dixson said.

Greensburg officials have the same basic message for each group that has come to town:

Don't be Greensburg. Be you.

"That's the most important thing in life," Dixson said in summing up his message last week to a gathering of the Wichita chapter of the American Meteorological Society. "Don't try to be somebody else. Be true to your values, be true to your priorities, be true to your principles."

An effective recovery from a disaster isn't about how quickly houses and buildings can be rebuilt, Dixson said. It's about the process.

Learning how to work with state and federal agencies has been "a real educational process," Dixson said.

Identifying your values and then using them to shape your priorities helps clarify planning and establish a road map for the future, Dixson said.

"What are our values? Who are we?" he asked. "You can't set priorities unless you know who you are."

Being stewards

When the concept of "going green" in Greensburg first surfaced, Dixson cringed.

He pictured bell bottoms, tie-dyed shirts, "hair down to here," hugging a tree and folks who use mind-altering chemicals, he said.

"That ain't going to work for us," Dixson said he thought. "We ain't going green. This is stupid."

But over time, he said, he learned going green meant sustainability —"about being good stewards of the resources we've been blessed with, in whatever microclimate you're at."

In Greensburg, that includes using the sun and wind to generate electricity.

In Tuscaloosa and Joplin and Smithfield, it could well mean something else.

"As we shared with Tuscaloosa's people, look at what your ancestors did when they built buildings — how they survived, how they oriented their houses to take advantage of the natural resources," Dixson said.

Many people wondered whether Greensburg would even rebuild after virtually every building in the town of nearly 1,500 was damaged or destroyed. In retrospect, Dixson said, Greensburg was "very blessed" to essentially be wiped from the map.

"We didn't have your haves and have-nots," he said. "It mattered not your socio-economic status. In a matter of minutes, we lost everything.

"The one sustainable resource we had was each other."

Learning experience

Nancy Graves, an administrative liaison for the task force overseeing rebuilding efforts in Tuscaloosa, said her contingent's visit to Greensburg was valuable. They learned they were doing a lot of the right things without even realizing it.

"That was reassuring," she said.

Tuscaloosa officials were particularly interested in learning how the tornado affected Greensburg's economy and how it set about retaining and attracting businesses.

"We learned so many different things it was crazy," Graves said.

Yet Tuscaloosa's approach to recovery has to be different than Greensburg's, she said, because the tornado damaged only a portion of the city of 90,000, not practically the whole city, like Greensburg.

While some residents and businesses are focusing on recovery and rebuilding, she said, the rest of Tuscaloosa can't be ignored.

"We have to continue to push everything forward," Graves said. "That doesn't mean you're going to do it perfectly."

Graves said she liked how designers used cypress from trees flattened by Hurricane Katrina in the construction of Greensburg's new school.

So many of the buildings and homes in Greensburg look normal, she said, not like something strange.

Open to new ideas

When he saw the business incubator building open in Greensburg in 2009, Dixson said, it reminded him of his grandfather's chicken coop in northwest Kansas.

The multi-level roof has banks of sloping tiers featuring small windows so more natural light can stream inside.

Farmers learned that chickens lay more eggs and cows produce more milk if they're housed in buildings that allow in plenty of natural light, Dixson said. So they built barns and coops with slanted roofs and installed windows.

Dixson and his wife lost their "dream home" in the tornado, which killed two of their neighbors across the street and 11 people in all on that first Friday in May 2007.

"We did not have a scrape, scratch or bruise on us," he said. "If we had been over in the southwest corner of the basement, like we were always taught as kids, we would have been covered with debris and I probably wouldn't be here to talk about it."

Dixson's new house features plenty of windows, too — facing east and west to allow views of the prairie's powerful sunrises and sunsets.

The north side of the house has just one window, and it's small.

Those features are a nod to what winters are like in southern Kansas, Dixson said.

The house features long porches on the front and back, to provide shade and reduce utility bills.

It also gives the Dixsons a place to relax in the evening and chat with neighbors as they stroll by — much like neighbors did decades ago before the advent of air conditioning, TV and personal computers.

"Whatever you do, make sure you cultivate those relationships that are important to you," he said. "That is the only true sustainable thing in life — the only thing that will survive the test of disaster, whether it's in your personal life, whether it's in your corporate life or your community."

Community spirit

It's easy to believe Greensburg's residents were brought closer together by their shared experience of surviving a monstrous tornado.

But Dixson said what truly forged bonds among residents was the large tent FEMA set up on the edge of town after the tornado went through.

That was where residents gathered in those first months, because there was no place else left.

"We did everything in this tent," Dixson said. "We ate together, we cried together, we hugged together, we laughed together."

That sprouted and nurtured a community spirit that has served Greensburg well as the town began to rebuild.

"In my opinion, that's why — four years later — we have made the progress we have."

Greensburg is only a little more than half as big as it was the night tornado hit, but officials remain optimistic about the city's future.

"We're not done," Kiowa County Emergency Management director Ray Stegman said. "We have a lot to go yet."

The business incubator is doing just what it is designed to do, he said: Give small businesses a place to sprout, then find their own home as they continue to grow.

Greensburg can't presume to lure a business that employs 200 people, Dixson said, but it can create an environment appealing for small businesses.

That can give Greensburg's young people reason to stay — or return home — to raise their families.

"It's not about us," Dixson said. "It's about future generations. It's about that legacy we're going to leave for future generations."

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

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