Tornado-flattened Kansas town is coming back greener
By Roxana Hegeman
GREENSBURG, Kan. — A year after it was practically wiped off the map by a tornado, Greensburg is rising again — and going green, too, with solar panels, wind turbines, tinted windows, water-saving toilets and other energy-efficient technology.
Environmentalists and civic leaders have seized on the disaster as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-engineer the town.
"I would never say the tornado happening was a good thing. I would never wish that on anybody," said Kim Alderfer, assistant city manager. "But given the opportunity, we have to do it right — to make it better."
On May 4, 2007, a ferocious F-5 twister blasted Greensburg, killing 11 people in the town of 1,400 and flattening its turn-of-the-last-century brick buildings, Victorians and prairie-style houses. Townspeople found themselves disoriented after most of Greensburg’s manmade and natural landmarks were erased or uprooted.
But now the water tower is back, the town’s one traffic light has been replaced, and neighborhoods are showing signs of life.
Returning homeowners and businesses are being encouraged to think about such things as energy-saving lights and rainwater collection systems as they rebuild. And the town government has resolved to erect public buildings that meet the stringent LEED Platinum standards for energy-efficient design.
"It will be a stronger, better, greener community," said Erica Goodman, a newly elected city councilwoman. "I think the green initiative is really what will set Greensburg apart from every other rural community in the United States."
About 40 homes have been built to environmentally friendly specifications, with added insulation, double-pane windows and high-efficiency compact-fluorescent lights. Some buildings have extra-large, south-facing windows that take advantage of sunlight to heat and illuminate the home. Many returning homeowners are also using recycled materials, including lumber and bricks salvaged from the twister.
Builders are installing water-efficient faucets, shower heads, toilets and appliances, and a few homes will also have solar panels to provide power.
Asserting mastery over the forces of nature that flattened the town, the John Deere farm equipment dealership has put up a wind turbine, as has the town’s brand-new arts center. Others are planned.
Kathy Doherty, 53, moved into her newly built house less than two weeks ago, relying on a combination of insurance and a government loan. She said she and her husband did not intentionally build their house green, but put in things such as an efficient hot water heater and insulation to cut their energy costs.
"In a way, I am for it some," she said of the town’s green effort. "I think they are going too far with it. But if they have the money, it is fine."
LEED Platinum buildings cost about 5 percent more to construct but generally save 30 to 50 percent on energy bills, according to Jack Rozdilsky, a University of North Texas professor who has studied Greensburg’s rebuilding effort.
A commemoration of the disaster, dubbed "Tragedy to Triumph — Greensburg Rising," begins Friday and culminates on Sunday with President Bush delivering the high school commencement address. But questions persist about Greensburg’s future — green or not.
Since the storm, 131 new home permits have been issued. But about half the town’s residents have yet to come back. Some cannot afford to rebuild, while others have moved on to other opportunities and settled elsewhere.
Many of the 700 people who remain in Greensburg are still living in "Femaville," the mobile home park set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the outskirts of town.
City leaders say they have received inquiries from major new industries about moving to town, but nothing has been announced and jobs are scarce. Vital local businesses — such as a pharmacy and full-service grocery store — have not come back.
"If I could, I’d click my heels together like Dorothy and it would be all back the way it was — but we can’t do it," said Helen Schrader, a clerk at the gift shop next to the town’s signature tourist attraction, the world’s largest hand-dug well.
Schrader commutes 30 miles to her Greensburg job. At 76, she cannot afford to rebuild in Greensburg.
Many rebuilding homeowners are also bracing for the next big storm by installing tornado-fortified walls and underground storm shelters.
"You don’t experience a storm like this and come out of it with an attitude of complacency," said Daniel Wallach, executive director of Greensburg GreenTown, a nonprofit group that is providing townspeople with technical assistance, a library of materials, classes and other help in rebuilding in an environmentally friendly way.
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