Special Reports

A greener Greensburg grows on Kansas prairie

Roofers put the finishing touches on a building along Kansas Avenue in Greensburg.
Roofers put the finishing touches on a building along Kansas Avenue in Greensburg. File photo

The mayor of Greensburg guides the city-leased hybrid Ford Escape around a corner and pulls to a stop. "Wow, I hadn't seen this," he says. "Another new home going in." Two years after an EF-5 tornado killed 11 people and swept away 90 percent of the town, so much has changed in Greensburg that even the mayor has to stay alert to keep up with it.

"If you don't drive around but about twice a week, you miss what's going on," Bob Dixson says.

Over there, for example, just south of the Kwik Shop on U.S. 54, is an arts center, a glass and wood rectangle that looks like a work of art.

A new business incubator has just opened on the highway. A new City Hall is about to open. A new school is under construction. So are a new hospital and a new courthouse.

New homes, duplexes and apartments have sprung up to form new neighborhoods. FEMAville, the trailer park put up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will shut down this week.

Population is on the rise. A year ago, only 700 of the town's original 1,400 residents remained. Now there are 800, including some newcomers, according to the city.

And school enrollment is up.

Meanwhile, the town is following through on its commitment to rebuild "green," using eco-friendly recycled and energy efficient materials.

It already boasts two LEED platinum buildings, the highest rating of the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

About 40 other "green" projects are under way or are planned.

Silo-shaped, eco-friendly concrete domes built for housing and business are part of the town's new landscape.

Cubed structures designed by architecture and design students at Kansas State University to showcase a variety of green technologies squat behind the arts center.

Greensburg is not so much a small town rebuilding out of rubble as a new form of a community rising naturally from the prairie.

The town is drawing as much on its pioneer past as the technological future in the way it uses and conserves natural resources.

"We are the new pioneers of the 21st century in many ways," Dixson says.

Living laboratory

Greensburg has become a living laboratory in green. Residents are fluent in green-speak. Words like ICF construction, carbon footprint and geothermal wells sprinkle conversation wherever they gather.

The culture of the rest of the country is changing as people lose homes and jobs in the economic downturn and try to figure out how to live within their means.

Greensburg's culture changed in 15 minutes.

Dixson was in his basement when it happened. He usually goes outside when sirens sound. But this time he sensed he should go below.

He and his wife, Ann, pulled rugs over their heads and waited.

The first thing he heard was debris hitting the sides of the 1912 Victorian house above him. Then the windows exploded. Then the house came apart.

Dixson describes the sound this way:

"If you take a crowbar and pull a nail out of a piece of old yellow pine, you know how it creaks? Multiply that about 10,000 times," he says.

The tornado, a massive wedge nearly two miles wide, seemed to Dixson to take forever to pass.

When the wind subsided, he threw off the rug, stood up and hada 360-degree view of rubble.

About a year later, Dixson, 55, lanky and soft spoken, became mayor of the rubble.

The former postmaster felt no pressure leading a town starting over from scratch. The opportunity to build "green" and leave that legacy to future generations is exciting.

"This feeds me," he says. "This is a passion."

'An ongoing process'

Signs of the tornado remain. Across the street from the sleek new art center a pair of concrete stairs lead to nowhere.

City streets still are lined with stunted trees, their branches and bark shorn by the storm.

A few damaged houses fester unattended. Streets remain damaged by the heavy equipment that rumbled over them to clear debris.

And for all the new construction under way, the town still feels empty. Winds blow through unchecked by trees or structures. Sounds of hammers echo from blocks away. The smell of dirt and construction fill the air.

Dixson still sees people on the streets who have what he calls a "tornado in the headlights" look.

It is a look of anger, frustration, impatience, irritation.

"It's a struggle for all of us. We all have our moments when it all comes back," Dixson says. "All we can do is make sure we take care of each other. That's what it's about."

Dixson pulls the hybrid Ford over to a neglected house and sighs for the owners of new homes beside it.

The city is still struggling to get some owners to deal with their damaged houses and clean up the debris.

"It's just an ongoing process," he says.

He points out the streetlights. Greensburg is the first city in the state with all LED (light emitting diode) streetlights. More than 300 of them offer wide arcs of soft illumination to bathe streets in the night.

"In maintenance and energy consumption, it's a savings of around 70 percent from the old ones," Dixson says.

"This isn't academic 'green,' but the real stuff," he says.

Leaders hope the town's greening efforts lure new businesses that want to be part of the movement and trade on Greensburg's brand name.

The town needs jobs.

"Companies are showing interest, but the economy didn't help us," Dixson says.

Some residents have stopped waiting.

Jeff Robinson, 42, who lost his job when the tornado wiped out the Coastal Mart, is packing his silver Ford pickup outside one of the last trailers in FEMAville. He is leaving because it is too expensive to build green, and he has another job in a Kwik Shop in Hutchinson, he says.

Robinson, who has lived in the trailer since August after moving around, says he was "green" before "green" was cool, but the cost of building a house is more than $100,000, and mortgages are too high.

Also "the city promised there would be jobs, but nobody's come," Robinson says.

Jeanette Siemens, Kiowa County economic development director, acknowledges that expectations were to have new jobs by now.

It hasn't worked out. But she still gets calls from businesses showing interest. Among them are a couple of manufacturers and smaller retailers, she says. "We still think it's going to happen. It's pretty much a given."

Small rural towns, as a rule, don't grow. But with new businesses, new jobs, new homes, schools and hospitals, Dixson and other leaders predict the town will reach its previous population of 1,400 in three years, then keep growing.

"I think without question it's going to be bigger," says Daniel Wallach, executive director and founder of Greensburg GreenTown, a nonprofit group helping the city go green. "I may be the only one in town that's concerned about growth planning."

What Greensburg has

Two years after the tornado took everything away, this is what Greensburg has now:

A business incubator at Main and U.S. 54 houses a paint center, a glassworks business, an attorney and several returning businesses.

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio added $400,000 to state and federal emergency funds and corporate donations to construct the $3.4 million building.

Tenants in the eco-friendly building pay modest rent in a start-up phase until they are ready to move into their own buildings.

The town has a new Dillons grocery story, a John Deere dealership that uses wind power, a General Motors dealership, and a new bank, all built with energy efficient construction.

Soon to open is a $3 million City Hall made of recycled brick and wood, designed to be the first LEED platinum city hall in the nation. Tours start this weekend.

It has the 5.4.7. Art Center, designed by graduate architecture students from the University of Kansas and named for the date of the tornado.

The LEED platinum structure is made of wood recycled from the Army depot plant in DeSoto. An outer glass shell protects ultraviolet rays from deteriorating the wood.

A 15-inch gap between the wood and glass allows a natural air flow that keeps the wood cool in the summer.

The center is powered by three wind turbines, has a green roof with plants, and features solar panels and geothermal wells.

"We've had people from all over the United States who saw it on TV and want to see it in person," says Stacy Barnes, the center's director and manager of the Big Well.

Workers are still cleaning the Big Well to make it safe for tours, Barnes says. Funds are being sought for a new museum for the well, which could open by the end of 2010, she says.

More is on the way:

Another bank; a business center with nine store fronts on the first block of Main Street; a $3.9 million downtown streetscape due to be completed in September; a $49.3 million, LEED-platinum school due to open in fall 2010; a $25 million LEED-platinum county hospital expected to be complete in 2010; new eco-friendly churches; and a 10-turbine wind farm that will provide enough power to meet the city's energy needs.

City projects total about $27 million, with funding from FEMA, USDA Rural Development, and the Kansas Housing Resource Agency, as well as insurance and donations.

The city learned Friday that proposed funds from the Kansas Department of Emergency Management for some of the projects will be delayed until the state budget issues are resolved.

Mennonite Housing is helping build energy-efficient homes.

"I'm extremely intoxicated by the effort," says Steve Hewitt, city administrator. "It's been difficult on me and on my personal family life. But as a career-oriented kind of guy... to be a part of so many wonderful projects is really amazing."

"Everything was an unknown two years ago," Greensburg GreenTown's Wallach says. "So to have an entire plan laid out and all these buildings in process, it's a huge, huge step.

"The heart of the community is back."

One green home

South of town, Greg and Lisa Waters have settled into their new two-story home, a traditional-looking house that is one of the most energy efficient in the city.

It is built with insulated concrete forms that fit together like Legos rising all the way to the ceiling line, and uses geothermal heating and cooling.

The temperature outside is 88 degrees, but it is 76 degrees inside and only ceiling fans are on.

Temperatures in the house stay fairly steady all year.

"We don't have to do a lot of raising and lowering the thermostat," Greg Waters says.

The old home, a ranch house built in the early 1960s, had winter heating bills of $500 to $600 monthly, Waters says.

Peak winter bills now won't go over $200, he says. Their most recent bill in their new, larger home, was $160.

Funding for the $340,000 house came from insurance and the Small Business Administration disaster loan program, said Waters, a branch manager and loan officer at People's Bank.

"What I was really excited about was having cement all the way to the roof," Waters said.

He was the only member of the family at home during the tornado, huddling with the dog, Zip, in a basement bathroom.

Not everybody bought in to the green concept, Hewitt says.

"I still think there's some resistance, because you can't make everybody happy," he says, "but overall the majority of the community sees it's better for everybody."

Going green gives the city a fighting chance to survive and prosper, he says, while other rural towns are disappearing.

Greensburg on TV

Two years after the storm took everything away from the town, residents are still watching themselves rebuild it on television.

Several hundred residents gathered in the school gym on a recent night to preview an episode of the second season of the Discovery Network series "Greensburg" on the Planet Green channel. The episodes start today

Before the screening, Allan Butler, the show's executive producer, says the Greensburg story continues to draw more viewer comments than any other Planet Green show.

"I think it's because it's just a story that touches on so many emotional levels of people overcoming long odds," he says.

Butler shows the audience the season's second episode, featuring some of the people in the gym, as well as a tour in November of an earthquake-ravaged province in central China by Dixson, Hewitt and school superintendent Darin Headrick. They signed an eco-development agreement with the Chinese government while they were there.

The audience watches the episode closely and applauds when it ends. Several approach Butler to thank him and to ask how to get copies of the show.

Taylor Schmidt, an 18-year-old high school senior, is in the show. He and other teens are shown gathering scrap metal from the countryside to use as part of a bench made of wood recycled from storm-damaged trees. The bench now sits at the school.

Schmidt is a member of the "Green Club," a growing group of students who share the "green" passion.

"Before the tornado I was ready to get out of Greensburg -- attend a university out of the state, and stay out. After the tornado, it really opened my eyes to what an incredible community Greensburg is, how unique it is," Schmidt says.

He faces a tough decision after he graduates from Kansas State University, he says. He could go elsewhere, but he also could come home. Greensburg is providing opportunities in sustainable development that larger cities aren't, he says.

"Greensburg is a city of miracles. I feel blessed every day to be part of this community," he says.

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