Twister Impetus for Turning Kansas Town Green

Udall map i i
Alice Kreit/NPR
Udall map
Alice Kreit/NPR
A pickup in a tree. i i

hide captionA tornado ripped through Udall, Kan., killing 77 people in one night in 1955.

Courtesy of Udall Historical Society Museum/box72.com
A pickup in a tree.

A tornado ripped through Udall, Kan., killing 77 people in one night in 1955.

Courtesy of Udall Historical Society Museum/box72.com
A scene of the destruction in Udall, Texas i i

hide captionThe town of Udall was all but destroyed by the tornado. The city was rebuilt, but for resident Clara Lacey, it has never been the same.

Courtesy of Udall Historical Society Museum/box72.com
A scene of the destruction in Udall, Texas

The town of Udall was all but destroyed by the tornado. The city was rebuilt, but for resident Clara Lacey, it has never been the same.

Courtesy of Udall Historical Society Museum/box72.com

One year ago this weekend, a tornado all but destroyed Greensburg, Kan., killing 11 people and wiping out nearly everything in its path. Since then, a remarkable transformation has taken hold, and a new town – one few Greensburg residents would have recognized this time last year — is emerging.

While most residents bubble with optimism, rebuilding a town from scratch is a daunting task.

Fortunately, there has been quite a bit of help along the way.

A new business incubator broke ground in Greensburg on Friday. It's normally the kind of event that might warrant a picture in the local newspaper. Instead, it was broadcast live on CBS.

County Economic Development Director Jeanette Siemens is tickled.

"It's a big, it's a huge day!" Siemens says. "What started out to be just a community celebration of surviving the year has turned into a national event really."

President Bush will be in Greensburg on Sunday to give the high school commencement address. Film crews came last summer and never left.

Much of the news coverage has been about Greensburg's focus on eco-friendly construction. The new business incubator, like all city government buildings, is designed to the very highest environmental standards.

Federal grants didn't cover all the extras, so City Administrator Steve Hewitt managed to secure $1 million from snack maker Frito-Lay. Hewitt was still almost $500,000 short when actor Leonardo DiCaprio picked up the phone and called Hewitt.

"Leonardo simply called and said, 'I hear you have gaps,'" Hewitt says. "'I hear there's a gap in the incubator. I want to help. I want to give.'"

Siemens says friends like DiCaprio, as well as the national media attention, are propelling this little western Kansas town headlong into the fast lane.

With Gratitude

These are certainly heady times for Greensburg. The town will soon boast a concentration of super energy-efficient buildings. Well over 100 houses are up or under construction, and a brand new water tower has sprung from the center of town.

"It's sad that the tragedy of the storm came through and wiped us out, but that presented us with a golden opportunity," says Mayor-elect Bob Dixson.

Amazingly, many people here speak with gratitude about the storm that crushed the town. Greensburg had dwindled for decades, and the storm offered a fresh start.

But there are lessons to be learned from the town of Udall, Kan., which is about 130 miles east of Greensburg.

A Tornado's Fury

Clara Lacey was pregnant when the Udall tornado hit 53 years ago this month. She survived a 75-foot flight through the air clutching her two young sons. Her house and the rest of the town were destroyed. Seventy-seven people died.

Udall sprang up again quickly, though. Clara and her family were back in a new house by Christmas, but she says the town was never the same. Udall, she says, turned into a "bedroom town" and people are not as close anymore.

"People move in and rent and drive back and forth to work, and you don't know everybody, like you used to," she says.

Just outside of Pratt, Kan., 30 miles from Greensburg, Lonny McCollum is also feeling a bit isolated. He was mayor of Greensburg when the tornado hit last year.

"Our friends are dispersed a lot, and you'll never replace that house," McCollum says. "It's just, your life's been destroyed, and that's all there is to it. It's just destroyed."

McCollum used to run the state highway patrol. He's trained for disasters. But, unlike many of his childhood friends, McCollum says he can't stand to visit Greensburg.

"I just don't want to see it. I don't want to see it. I don't want to be reminded of it," he says.

None of the sturdy folks rebuilding in Greensburg expects to see the old town again. Lifelong residents still lose their bearings on a street grid stripped of every old landmark. But at least now, there's a water tower where the water tower is supposed to be, a park where the park goes, and a new community taking shape brick by brick on the old foundation.

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