How an Entire Town Leveled By a Tornado Is Rebuilding Green

On May 4, 2007, an EF5 tornado cut a 1.7-mile path of destruction through Greensburg, Kansas. Winds reaching speeds of 205 miles per hour uprooted trees, demolished homes and leveled the town. Eleven people died and 95% of the buildings were destroyed beyond repair.

The town, whose population has dropped from 2,000 to 800 following the storm, responded with a first-of-its-kind commitment: to rebuild its businesses, schools and homes to meet the highest environmental standards. The motto on the town’s website captures the enthusiasm: "Greensburg: Better, Stronger, Greener!” Town officials passed a resolution that all future municipal buildings over 4,000 square feet would meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s prestigious LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum designation. And word of the commitment created a media frenzy, including a reality TV show about Greensburg on Planet Green with eco-celebrity host Leonardo DiCaprio that’s now in its second season. President Obama even gave Greensburg a specific mention during his address to Congress in February.

Greensburg Mayor Bob Dixon says all that outside attention has given the town an advantage with attracting corporate sponsors and new businesses. While the rest of rural America is being hit hard with the economic downturn, high unemployment and layoffs, Greensburg’s emphasis on green living has given the town a buffer.

The owners of the local John Deere dealership now sell wind turbines. The funeral home owner opened a new showroom that sells sustainable bamboo flooring and green cleaning products. Recent high school graduate Taylor Schmidt, who helped found the Greensburg High School Green Club, now looks at his hometown with a new eye. "Before the tornado, our city was dying. Our biggest export was youth,” Schmidt says. "Now, people are moving here to see what we will become.” Town officials are rebuilding their infrastructure with room to grow.

Greensburg’s hospital is aiming for LEED Platinum certification.

The John Deere dealership was one of the first to come back online. It is about to receive a LEED Platinum designation. Experts from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, helped the business design an energy conservation plan that slashed their utility bills by nearly 40%. The plan included using recycled waste oil for radiant heat, as well as wind power. And native landscaping cut the dealership’s water usage by 50%, says owner Mike Estes.

It’s the first John Deere facility in the country to earn a LEED designation. "What we’re building here is a model green community,” Estes says. "And a lot of it has to do with the ‘green’ people can save and put back into their pockets.”

The new Greensburg is placing a strong emphasis on eco-tourism, too. A nonprofit group called Greensburg GreenTown is seeking donations from builders and construction companies to build a chain of 12 eco-homes. The economic downturn has made it difficult, says founder Daniel Wallach. "There have been some very generous donations but generally it is a difficult time to raise money,” he says. The group is trying to fill a $30,000 funding gap for the eco-homes, which are open to overnight guests.

The standout is the Silo House. This circular, concrete house with a rooftop vegetable garden can withstand winds greater than 200 miles per hour.

Model eco-friendly homes are designed, in part, to draw tourists.

"Following the storm, when you looked down Main Street, the only thing left standing was the silo,” says Project Manager Mason Earles. "We wanted to allude to the strength of the silo and its place in rural America.”

Some are surprised that this conservative Midwest community has embraced a green ethos with such fervor. But actually, Dixon says, it’s not that far removed from the common-sense approach of their farming ancestors. "Sometimes we hear the word ‘green’ and we think modernistic,” he says. "But green is just being good stewards of the resources we’ve been blessed with.”

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