Destroyed by tornado, town saving big by rebuilding all green

In 2007, a tornado flattened Greensburg, Kan. Now it's on a path to financial stability thanks to a city-wide green rebuilding effort. CNET Road Trip 2014 looked at the wreckage and the recovery.

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The County Commons building, one of several new LEED-certified structures in Greensburg, Kan., that were built after the small town was all but destroyed by a 2007 tornado. This photograph was taken using a DJI Phantom 2 Vision-plus quadcopter. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

GREENSBURG, Kan. -- Seven years ago, one of the strongest tornadoes ever to touch down in the United States flattened the town of Greensburg, Kan., population 1,400. Twelve people died when the 1.7 mile-wide twister rolled straight through town, destroying 95 percent of its buildings.

Rather than fold up their tents and leave, most of the residents decided to stay and rebuild. Starting from scratch gave them a rare opportunity to embrace green technologies and the financial benefits those technologies offer. Today, Greensburg has one of the highest per-capita rates of buildings in the US that are LEED-certified -- or that adhere to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standard of sustainable construction. The community also has a better understanding of how to build a green city than just about any other town in America.

"The decision was made early on, and a seed was planted," said Bob Dixson, Greensburg's mayor, who was postmaster until taking office in 2008. "The night after the tornado, there were already discussions: Let's think about this as a [total] rebuilding."

After all, he added, "Our name is Greensburg."

Since May 4, 2007, Greensburg has focused on creating a municipal rebuilding model other cities can follow. Their approach isn't just about making people feel good; Taking an environmentally-friendly approach benefits the environment and also helps the bottom line.

Although new, green, city buildings cost between 15 percent and 20 percent more than the non-green alternatives, Dixson said, long-term reductions in utility and maintenance bills can recoup those extra costs in as little as seven or eight years. "After that," he said. "It's total savings."

'Let's do it right'

During CNET Road Trip 2014, I visited Greensburg, which has about 900 people today, to see what earning the nickname "Green Town U.S.A." means. I also wanted to understand how the town is bringing former residents back, as well as attracting new, younger families.

The short answer: every step the community makes is with an eye toward ensuring Greensburg will continue to thrive into the future. In 2007, the town passed a resolution mandating that all city-owned buildings of more than 4,000 square feet be built to the highest LEED standards, the first municipality in the country to do so.

"If we're going to do this, let's do it right," said Dixson, a 6-foot, 7-inch silver-haired 61-year-old with five grandsons and four granddaughters who has lived in Greensburg since 1985. "It's our responsibility to build a decent community for our grandkids and their grandkids."

Of course, it's hard for Greensburg to do a side-by-side comparison of its new structures to its old ones. "We don't have the old buildings here to compare them to," Dixson said.

But green building experts agree that Greensburg's decision is likely to save it hundreds of thousands of dollars over time. "There are a lot of real taxpayer benefits, especially when you're talking about public buildings, "said Jill Buck, founder and CEO of the GoGreen Initiative, a non-profit organization that educates schools, businesses, and individuals about the benefits of sustainable development. "If you can build green buildings, you end up saving public dollars in the long haul."

20-Minute warning

Four times a day at 7 a.m., noon, 1 p.m., and 6 p.m., Greensburg blows a public siren that doubles as a tornado warning system. Typically, the siren blast lasts less than a minute. At 9:19 p.m. on that May 2007 evening, it started blaring and didn't stop.

After twenty minutes, "the tornado ripped it from its perch or destroyed the [town's] power substation, depending on who you ask," according to "Green Town U.S.A.," Thomas J. Fox's book about Greensburg's reconstruction.

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More adventures from Road Trip 2014

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    There's little doubt the siren saved lives. Town leaders feared the worst as the EF-5 tornado -- the most severe type on the so-called Enhanced Fujita scale, bringing sustained gusts of up to 234 miles an hour -- bore down on Greensburg. In fact, they issued an urgent call to state officials for three refrigerated trucks to hold the hundreds of bodies they expected.

    But most residents had time to hunker down in storm shelters, and the death toll, while regrettable, was disproportionately small relative to the tornado's impact on the hundreds of buildings around town. A week after the storm, at the first post-tornado town meeting, community leaders presented a concept paper for what would eventually become a non-profit tasked with advising the city on sustainable building practices. In the Greensburg GreenTown proposal, they called for city-wide adoption of green rebuilding principles, especially for public buildings.

    The community quickly agreed. Since then, hundreds of new structures have gone up around Greensburg, many of which were designed to stand up better in a major storm. The Federal Emergency Management Agency kicked in $10.5 million to help with city-owned buildings.

    The town now has 11 LEED-certified buildings, the highest per-capita rate in the country, according to Greensburg GreenTown.

    The greening of Greensburg

    Driving into Greensburg, the county seat of Kiowa County, from the east along the rural US highway 400, the clues that something horrific took place are easy to spot. Though there are many new buildings, there are also many empty lots -- with only a walkway that disappears into overgrown grass left to show that a house once stood there.

    But turning south on Main Street at the center of town, you notice something different: gleaming new buildings topped with solar panels and rooftop gardens.

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    Seen from above, Greensburg's Silo Eco-Home (left) and rebuilt Big Well (upper right) are examples of new buildings erected since the tornado. In the lower right, however, you can see the faded outline of a former building that was destroyed by the tornado. This photograph was taken using a DJI Phantom 2 Vision-plus quadcopter. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

    Take the new Kiowa County Schools complex, located on the south end of town, for example. Certified LEED Platinum -- the highest green rating -- the buildings feature exterior walls made from Kansas limestone and fir reclaimed from farms in California and Kansas. Throughout the 123,000-square-foot facility are large windows designed to let in natural light. In the gym, the bleachers are made from recycled milk jugs and water bottles, as are the lockers in the locker rooms.

    Greensburg managed to use "creative financing" in the construction of the school by taking money provided by FEMA for the building of new storm shelters and incorporating the school's shelters inside the locker rooms.

    The cost: $45 million.

    Closer to the center of town is the 5.4.7 Arts Center -- named for the date of the tornado. It features solar panels, a rainwater harvesting system, wind turbines and wood siding reclaimed from the DeSoto, Kan., Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant, which produced propellant for the military starting in World War II until it was closed in 1992.

    A block-and-a-half southeast is the new Kiowa County Commons, a 20,000-square-foot community center with a library, a media center, a museum, and a refurbished version of Hunter Drug Store Soda Fountain, which first opened in the early 1950s but was destroyed in the storm. The soda fountain has now been brought back to life inside the Commons building, with red stools and huge ice cream sundaes. The Commons' large windows and solar panels are visible from the street. Inside, visitors see a living roof designed to capture rainwater and cool the building during the hot summers.

    Other green projects include Prairie Pointe Townhomes, a 16-unit rental housing development.

    Many of Greensburg's old buildings, some of which date back to the town's founding in 1886 as a farming and oil and gas community, were literally scraped off their foundations. New structures are appearing, albeit slowly. Of the 110 businesses Greensburg had before the tornado, between 60 and 70 have returned, Dixson said.

    Today, tourists can now stay at a bed and breakfast housed in what's known as the " Silo Eco-Home," a live-in sustainability laboratory.

    The Eco-Home was built to resemble Greensburg's grain silo, one of the few major structures still standing after the tornado. It features thick, round concrete walls ideal for surviving tornado-force winds and the countless wood, brick, and metal missiles that fly around in a storm. It also boasts an energy- and water-efficient system with solar panels, a living roof, natural ventilation and drip irrigation.

    Losing population

    One unfortunate side-effect of the tornado was that hundreds of people decided to leave Greensburg, often to be closer to their families. Today, there are fewer than 900 residents, down from 1,400 before the storm.

    Economic malaise and a desire by some to move to more vibrant communities had already begun that exodus in the months and years before the siren wailed and didn't stop, according to Ruth Ann Wedel, a member of Greensburg GreenTown, "We were [already] having a tornado," she said. "We just didn't know it.


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    The remnants of an old building in Greensburg that has yet to be replaced. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

    Greensburg's commitment to a sustainable future is now giving those who remained a reason to stay put. Even more crucial, the town is growing "one person at a time," said Wedel. The newcomers include young families, like the man who spent a year in Greensburg volunteering after the tornado and moved there permanently this month to open a computer business.

    Another side benefit -- for local homeowners, at least -- is that the value of the average house in Greensburg has gone up about 183 percent thanks to green building practices. "You could buy any home in town" before the disaster for about $60,000, said Dixson. "Now, that same [sized] home is $150,000 to $175,000."

    That's also helped the city's tax base recover much faster than its population. While Dixson noted that the tax base was almost entirely wiped out along with everyone's homes and businesses, Greensburg is now down only about 25 percent of its total valuation, versus about 40 percent of its population.

    Still, some green initiatives have failed. Greensburg GreenTown set out to build a second Eco-Home with a passive solar design that "takes advantage of the local climate to integrate simple, low-maintenance methods for natural heating and cooling, natural daylight, and natural ventilation." But because of funding problems, the building sits half-finished across from the bed and breakfast. Wedel said time is running out before City Hall will order the eyesore razed.

    Conservation values

    Mayor Dixson's makes a passionate pitch for the town's green efforts. Sustainability -- the use of wind, geothermal, and the power of the sun -- was once widely practiced in rural America, he argued. Perhaps it's just something that got lost along the way.

    Now there are few alternatives for a town that wants to be financially sustainable. That was the winning argument for local residents who may have once associated "green" with "left-wing activities" prior to the tornado. "If you're just talking about going green, sometimes that has a negative connotation," Dixson said. "But if you talk about how it can help you financially...your net bottom line means you save money."

    But where Dixson talks with the air of a practiced, though practical, politician, Wedel puts Greensburg's rebirth in more stark terms. "We had a clean slate," Wedel said. "When you have a clean slate, you can re-invent yourselves."

     

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