Monday, April 20, 2009

The Greenest Town in America

The Greenest Town in America
by Lamar Graham
published: 04/19/2009

An eco-friendly home in Greensburg, Kansas. Photo by Jim Reed.

Darin Headrick, superintendent of schools in Greensburg, Kan., wasn’t particularly alarmed to hear a tornado siren wail on the evening of May 4, 2007. Such warnings are rites of spring in south-central Kansas, and when Mother Nature gets her dander up, “there’s nothing much you can do but get home, put the vehicles away, and get down in the basement,” Headrick says. So he and his wife went next door and joined their neighbors, a couple with two teenage daughters, in their below-ground rec room.

Violent wind, rain, and hail lashed the town. The power went out. Suddenly, Headrick says, “ there was a huge pressure change in the atmosphere.” They heard glass begin to shatter above them, then a sound like a giant wrecking ball.

Miraculously, the planks over their heads held fast. The rest of the house simply vanished. So did every other dwelling in the vicinity. For a desperate hour, the two families searched for neighbors. Eventually, they set out on foot for the dark center of town.

Every house and building they passed had been flattened. “We met people coming from the other direction,” Headrick recalls. “They said, ‘It’s not any better back there.’ That’s when we knew.” Greensburg, population 1574, had been wiped off the map.

Devastated but not destroyed: Greensburg after the twister that killed 11 on May 4, 2007

The tornado that obliterated Greensburg was one of the strongest ever recorded anywhere, with winds of 205 mph and a footprint 1.7 miles wide. The town, only about 1.5 square miles, never stood a chance. Eleven people died. Fewer than a dozen homes were left standing.

The devastation was so complete that folks in Greensburg wondered whether to rebuild at all. Even before the twister, their town had been on the wane, its population graying, its young people moving away. “Rural America is kind of dying,” Headrick observes.

Yet in the days immediately following the disaster, hundreds of Greensburg residents gathered under a circus tent pitched by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on the outskirts of town. There they discovered in themselves an urgent desire for resurrection.

“The only thing we had left was our relationships with one another,” explains Mayor Bob Dixson, a retired postmaster. “So we did everything together. We worshipped together. We ate together.” Shared adversity, he says, drew folks closer.

Quickly, consensus emerged. Some 800 people pledged to return. So did more than 60 businesses. Townspeople also agreed that they couldn’t simply rebuild as before. If there was any silver lining in the funnel cloud, they concluded, it was that Greensburg now had the chance to imagine an entirely new future. Here was an opportunity to attract outsiders, create new jobs, and sustain generations to come.

So together they hatched a plan. They would rebuild Greensburg as the Greenest City in America—the most energy-efficient, environmentally sensitive municipality in the U.S., an oasis on the Great Plains for eco-friendly industries, a sustainable-development laboratory to inspire the nation.

“If we hadn’t consciously decided to rebuild green, we’d have simply rebuilt a dying town,” says Scott Reinecke, who lost his auto-body shop to the twister. “The green push put us in the spotlight.”

he prairies of Kansas might seem an unlikely epicenter for America’s green revolution. Folks in Greensburg are more likely to wear cowboy boots than Birkenstocks and—before the tornado, at least — to drive pickup trucks than compact hybrids. Yet conservation and thriftiness are entwined in the DNA they inherited from their pioneer ancestors.

“These are commonsense people,” says Daniel Wallach, executive director of Greensburg GreenTown, the nonprofit promoting the eco-initiative. “They conserve. They hate waste. If they’re not farmers, they’re close to farmers. The country desperately needs this demographic involved in environmental problem-solving and energy self-sufficiency.”

Greensburg has shown extraordinary commitment to its cause. After the twister, most residents moved into a “FEMA-ville” of about 400 mobile homes on the edge of town. They were anxious to return to real houses. Some couldn’t wait and used government assistance to rebuild quickly the old-fashioned way. But City Administrator Steve Hewitt estimates that 70% of citizens signed onto the green initiative.

Homeowners and businesses were encouraged to do the best they could—at the least installing energy-efficient windows and appliances, better insulation, fuel-efficient heating, and low-flow toilets. Ideally, they would aspire to the same goal as the local government: the highest standards of the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program—L EED Platinum certification, the Holy Grail of green building.

Slowly, Greensburg began to rise from the rubble.

There have been plenty of lessons. Early on, available builders simply had no experience with green construction methods. Until they attained it, prices exceeded the extra 8% to 9% the USGBC says it ought to cost to improve a building’s energy efficiency by 60%.

Today, hundreds of new, environmentally friendly houses—most with reinforced “safe rooms” in their basements—squat on dirt lots all over town. Greensburg GreenTown is building a dozen model “ eco-homes” to showcase cutting-edge sustainable design. FEMA-ville has dwindled to a few dozen trailers. The town already has one LEED Platinum building—one of only 125 in the world—a small arts center. Two other structures nearing completion aspire to the same rarefied status—as do the new city hall, the new school, and the new county hospital, all under construction.

On one level, Greensburg already has achieved its goal. “On a per capita basis,” says Michelle Moore of the USGBC, the town represents “the greatest commitment to green building anywhere in the U.S. There are other places—bigger cities—that are doing extraordinary things with their infrastructure, but pound for pound, Greensburg is the greenest city in America.”

In February, residents cheered the return of Greensburg’s only supermarket, the reopening of a John Deere dealership, and the launch of a $3 million “business incubator,” a rent-subsidized office complex for start-up businesses. The last was built with federal and state emergency money, corporate contributions, and $400,000 from the actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Despite such milestones, “we’re not out of the doghouse,” says Steve Hewitt. Greensburg’s experiment in sustainability will not be a success, he says, unless the town can, in fact, sustain itself. Greensburg will attract so-called green-collar manufacturing only when the town is capable of supporting new workers and their families. “We need a school and a hospital,” Hewitt says. “Who cares if you have a green city hall if you don’t have schools or health care?”

The school is on its way. Since August 2007, the 210 students (K-12) of Unified School District 422 have learned their lessons in trailers. Darin Headrick’s mission now is to get them back in a real school—one with geothermal heating, a wind turbine for electricity, and hydrogen fuel cells for backup power. The new school is slated to open in August 2010 and to cost $49.4 million, about $29 million of which will come from federal funds and the balance from local taxpayers.

“We’re building a very cost-effective, efficient building,” Headrick says. “It’s not fancy at all, but it’ll have lots of sustainable elements.”

On Feb. 24, President Barack Obama addressed a joint session of Congress. In praising “ the dreams and aspirations of ordinary Americans who are anything but ordinary,” he said: “I think about Greensburg, Kansas, a town that was completely destroyed by a tornado but is being rebuilt by its residents as a global example of how clean energy can power an entire community, how it can bring jobs and businesses to a place where piles of bricks and rubble once lay.” TV cameras dutifully panned from the President to one of his invited guests, Greensburg Mayor Bob Dixson.

“Never in my lifetime have I been prouder to say I’m a Kansan,” Dixson says. “Never in my life have I been prouder to be an American. We are in the middle of everywhere here in Greensburg. We’re blessed with an opportunity here—to be pioneers again.”

Get Help To Go Green
As part of its economic-stimulus program, the federal government has allocated more than $5 billion to help Americans make their homes more energy-efficient.
► If you have an annual household income of less than $44,100 (for a family of four), you may qualify for up to $6500 in improvements through the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Weatherization Assistance Program.
► The DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants Program is awarding an additional $3.2 billion to state, county, and city governments to parcel out for local projects that improve the energy efficiency of residential and commercial buildings.

Online Resources
► Greensburg GreenTown: Nonprofit organization promoting Greensburg’s eco-friendly rebuilding initiative. Regularly updated blog tracks progress of projects all over the city.
► City of Greensburg: Greensburg’s official website. Links to various municipal agencies, as well as official information on the city’s rebuilding plan.
► U.S. Green Building Council: Nation’s leading organization for the development of green construction standards and the certification of green building products and techniques.
► Planet Green:Episode guides for Planet Green’s “Greensburg” series, background information of Greensburg citizens featured on the show, and online-only “webisodes” made by Greensburg teens.

Parade 4/19/09

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