Greensburg rebuilds from 2007 tornado — now it needs more people

It will never look the same as the old town before the 2007 tornado. But those who remain hope it will someday begin to feel the same.

With about 800 loyal residents, Greensburg’s population remains a bit more than half what it was when devastation struck.

Their community won global acclaim for rebuilding with an eco-friendly future in mind. Now they need more people to call the new Greensburg home.

At least they’ve got their Big Well back in business to draw curiosity-seekers during spring break.

Like most of the public buildings that replaced aging, small-town structures erased by the twister, the $3 million Big Well Museum made a bold ecological and architectural statement when it opened two years ago. It also reunited the town with its history as Home of the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well, a source of pride since 1888.

The well’s reopening marked “the symbolic return of Greensburg,” a booster said at the time.

Well, almost.

Many visitors last week, though awed by the facility, were saddened by the view from the circular upper deck: Between the museum and the Jetsons-style buildings along Main Street stretched two vacant blocks, undeveloped and bleached by sunshine.

Phillys Stevenson of Weatherford, Okla., frowned: “So many leafless trees.” She had lived around here decades ago and was back with her grandson for the first time since 90 percent of Greensburg was flattened.

“This was such a green little town,” she said. “It was known for the Big Well, not for the tornado.”

It’s still “green,” but only as a model of environmental sustainability. And it’s still a little town, very much so.

That is where Greensburg, on the arid plains of southwest Kansas, stands today: a small town like no other, but small nonetheless, and pitted against economic forces hobbling small towns everywhere.

“We need jobs like everyone else,” said Mayor Bob Dixson.

Nearly seven years of positive press, and even a reality TV show, have chronicled Greensburg’s inspiring resilience, its plethora of energy-saving LEED-Platinum buildings and the 10 wind turbines powering the town.

Yet many wonder if the hype has backfired, leading outsiders to assume that building a home or launching a business here requires a costly investment in green technology.

It doesn’t, Dixson and others stress.

“We have no ordinances that say you have to build green,” said the mayor. “Just come in and show us the right plans, follow the building codes in effect, get a permit and start building.”

Among those trying to lure new residents and employers is Tom Corns, president of Greensburg State Bank and broker for Kiowa County Realty. He, too, senses a misperception that locating in Greensburg requires installing solar panels and following a strict set of Earth-friendly rules.

“People who aren’t informed have expressed that opinion ... but there are no special requirements,” Corns said. “The businesses that came back after the tornado, for the most part, built what they could afford.”

What Greensburg and its mostly empty Business Park need, town leaders say, are the types of small companies that deal in the trades that have always sustained this region: agriculture, oil and natural gas — hardly the beloved industries of tree-huggers.

A new feed yard would be nice, or a parts distribution plant employing 10.

Just 10 new families, after all, can make a big difference in a town of 800.

That’s down from roughly 1,450 people who lived here on May 4, 2007, when an EF5 tornado threw Greensburg on a whirlwind course of becoming famous around the globe.

Blown away

No amount of media sentimentality — or, in Greensburg’s case, three years of being profiled in a Planet Green network documentary narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio — can gloss over what tornado survivors know full well:

Recovering is hard.

Recovering in a small town is especially hard, given that one of the appealing features of old Greensburg — its affordable housing stock — blew away.

The tornado “turned our entire housing market upside-down,” said banker Corns. “Before, you could easily buy a three-bedroom ranch home for $50,000 or $60,000. After the tornado, you couldn’t build one for less than $160,000,” and the higher home prices continue to tamp down demand.

All told, the rebuilding could not have happened without $35 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance and $30 million in low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

For many senior citizens, staying was not an option. Hundreds of them took their insurance settlements and relocated to loved ones’ homes and care facilities in Dodge City, Pratt or Wichita, never to return.

Young renters, as well, left for good.

For the remaining stalwarts who met at town meetings in a tent, the challenge was clear: Greensburg’s populaton had been declining for decades, and for the place to rebound and thrive, it needed to become something more than just another speck on the rural Kansas map.

They decided to become a laboratory for green design: “Home of the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well” gave way to a new motto greeting motorists passing through.

“Greensburg: Rebuilding ... Stronger, Better, Greener!”

On all three counts, many residents say, their community triumphed. If not yet in thriving fashion.

“Everyone goes through a tragedy at some point,” said Mike Estes, vice president of the BTI John Deere dealership that rebuilt its facility to meet stringent LEED Platinum standards, even though it didn’t need to. “Do you retreat, pack your bags, or do you buck up and realize you’re not going through this alone?

“Thinking back, it wasn’t easy for anybody to decide to stay.”

“We pay it forward,” said GreenTown staffer Ruth Ann Wedel.

In February, delegates of the U.S. Agency for International Development stopped at the GreenTown office on their way to lend help to typhoon victims in the Philippines.

Greensburg volunteers last year flocked to Moore, Okla., when that community witnessed its third major twister in 20 years.

Resident Matt Deighton brought to Moore his dog Molly, a Dalmation he wrote up in a children’s book, “Molly and the Tornado.” Published last year, it’s the story of one critter’s calm in the midst of chaos.

“Those kids in Moore just loved Molly,” Deighton said. “But she was 14. And three days after we got back, she died in my arms.”

Molly enjoyed a full life. She accompanied Deighton to many other disasters and even strutted down the red carpet at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.

“You think of where we all were seven years ago, and look at Greensburg now,” Deighton said. “Known around the world.”

Greensburg boasts more LEED-certified buildings, per capita, than any place on earth. Construction was largely funded by foundation grants that flowed in from groups eager to play a role in the town’s grand vision.

International exposure, federal disaster aid and public-private partnerships gave rise to some of the greenest and most visually arresting public facilities of any city 100 times Greenburg’s size.

They included a $30 million hospital sporting angled, exterior walls and a new K-12 school campus that uses 55 percent less water than the destroyed one.

A whirring flock of wind turbines provides enough energy to the electric grid over the year to power every house, business and municipal building in Greensburg.

Patrons of the Bar H Tavern on U.S. 54 worry, though, that a community of 800 won’t be able to afford the maintenance on those turbines and the school’s dual-flush toilets. “Not everyone agrees with all this green stuff,” one local said. “What we really need is more people.”

High hopes of luring green-industry manufacturers and new jobs have been tempered by a lagging economy nationwide, said Kansas Secretary of Commerce Pat George.

A solar panel maker had expressed early interest in locating to Greensburg. “But the economy has put a lot of those things on pause,” George said, noting that the collapse of the U.S. housing market slowed demand for energy efficiencies in new-home construction.

“The nation in general isn’t moving in that direction of having solar panels on every new home in five years,” said George. “It’s going to be a slower process, more organic.”

Mayor Dixson, a Republican, has gained national attention as a spokesman for “sustainability” in community planning. He still preaches it, though he regrets that talk of environmental stewardship has become more divisive, fueled by debates over climate change, in the years since the tornado.

“The whole discussion, from the White House down,” he lamented, “has become more politically charged since the 2008 presidential election.”

So, with most of the town’s public projects completed, the focus from here on will be on making Greensburg a homier place for the residents to live and work, augmented by dollars from visitors.

The Big Well Museum and a popular soda fountain, rescued and restored from the wreckage of Hunter’s Drug Store, have done much to help Greensburg feel more like the home people recall, Dixson said:

“We need those physical features that tie into our heritage.”

Years ahead

Greensburg’s next addition aims to do the same.

Finishing touches are being applied to a sprawling Twilight Theatre, replacing a favorite entertainment spot lost in 2007.

With a screen 55 feet wide, the movie house will seat 400 and serve also as a high school auditorium and convention spot.

“I see this as one of the economic drivers of Greensburg for the years ahead,” said Gary Goodman of the local theater board. “We need to be a destination point. People aren’t going to be coming to the Big Well every month, over and over.”

At $4 million, the art-deco theater looks gigantic for such a little town. But it speaks to the spirit of a tight community still rallying from the rubble.

Half of the funds to build came from donations within Kiowa County. Four families each gave $100,000 or more.

As the theater attests, the future of a town rebuilt with outside help now rests with those within it. They include newcomers such as Julie Keeton’s family.

In 2012, Keeton and her husband sold their Wichita home so she could be the pharmacist at Greensburg’s new hospital.

“What drew us, really, was the small-town lifestyle,” says Keeton, 27, who grew up in Ness City, Kan. “Raising our son (born three weeks ago) in that close-knit setting is worth more to us than a lot of things in life. ...

“And I was shocked. My first week here, people were bringing me muffins, cheesecake, all sorts of gifts.

“They were so appreciative we were here.”

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