On the evening of May 4, 2007, Greensburg, Kansas, was utterly demolished by a category EF5 tornado. Roaring up from the Texas panhandle, the 1.7-mile-wide monster tore through the town, flattening houses and flinging car parts onto the roof of the grain elevator. Residents had 26 minutes’ warning, allowing many of them to scramble for shelter. Nonetheless, the tornado destroyed 95% of the town and killed eleven people.
Greensburg was determined to rebuild. The simple way to do it would have been to re-create essentially the same town as before. But despite being physically, emotionally, and economically shattered, residents managed to see the opportunity that followed in the twister’s path. They chose to rebuild not the simplest way, but the best way. Regional activist Daniel Wallach and mayor Lonnie McCollum envisioned how the new Greensburg could become a model of rural sustainability; Kathleen Sebelius, the governor at the time, lent support; and the rest of the town embraced the idea.
Despite its name (the original Green was a nineteenth-century stagecoach driver), Greensburg was no hotbed of eco-activism. It was, and is, a conservative farm town, the seat of rural Kiowa County, where Mitt Romney got 86% of the vote. But sustainable rebuilding represents, as the townspeople like to say, "solid midwestern values." Planning for the future, using water wisely, respecting the land, reducing waste: everyone could get behind those goals, and did. Even people well beyond the city limits of Greensburg contributed money, time, resources, and ideas to help remake the town.
Fast forward to 2013. Greensburg farms the wind for its electricity, selling its surplus back to the grid. Most municipal buildings, including the city hall, school, and hospital, are LEED-certified, and the streets are now lit by LEDs. The town’s business community has bought in as well—the Best Western has its own wind turbine, the LEED-Platinum-certified John Deere dealership stores its waste oil to heat itself in winter, and Centera Bank, also LEED-certified, absorbs stormwater with its own bioswale. People come from all over the world to tour these facilities.
According to Daniel Wallach, interest in the Greensburg model is so strong that GreenTown, the nonprofit organization that leads the tours, has fielded inquiries from hundreds of other towns and is now consulting for many of them. There may only be one Greensburg, Kansas, but the world is full of communities recovering from catastrophe, as well as those taking up the challenge of planning for a smart, sustainable future. They can find that future happening today in Greensburg.
Text by Peter Brewitt
Find more from Orion’s new series, Reimagining Infrastructure, at www.orionmagazine.org/infrastructure.