Tornado's Gifts: Greensburg Rebuilds, Revitalizes

Greensburg, Kan., map i i
Alice Kreit, NPR
Greensburg, Kan., map
Alice Kreit, NPR
A crew builds an art studio near the rubble of a church that was destroyed in last year's tornado i i

hide captionA crew builds a glass art studio out of recycled lumber near the rubble of a church that was destroyed in last year's tornado. Except for the steps, the church was reduced to a pile of rubble. In the distance are three wind turbines.

Frank Morris, NPR
A crew builds an art studio near the rubble of a church that was destroyed in last year's tornado

A crew builds a glass art studio out of recycled lumber near the rubble of a church that was destroyed in last year's tornado. Except for the steps, the church was reduced to a pile of rubble. In the distance are three wind turbines.

Frank Morris, NPR

More from Greensburg

Many people in Greensburg, Kan., say that when their town was hit by a tornado last year, it was something of a gift. Residents have worked furiously during the past year not only to revitalize the once-dying town, but also to rebuild it in a way that is both economically and environmentally sustainable.

As President Bush visits Sunday, one year after one of the most powerful tornados on record obliterated the small town, he'll find an amazing revitalization. Wind turbines, dozens of houses and some of the world's most environmentally friendly buildings have sprouted where the tornado left only splintered rubble.

The city has committed to rebuilding "LEED Platinum," the highest standard awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council. That's no mean feat for what had been a faltering, cash-strapped little town before the licking it took from the EF5 tornado.

"The town was wiped out, but the community was not. And the community is indeed stronger than ever," says Daniel Wallach, who launched an organization to promote the green building initiative. Wallach credits the success entirely to the community buy-in.

"These people are very used to being guided by values. You know, you don't live in western Kansas if money is all you care about, or prestige," Wallach says.

He says he believes that residents' selfless spirit vaulted this conservative little town into the forefront of the environmental movement. "I think you're going to see a state-of-the-art, living laboratory."

Building a 'New Normal'

This weekend, the first shop to rebuild on Main Street officially opened its doors.

Greensburg's churches, all 11 of them destroyed in the tornado, pulled together to get the thrift store and food pantry open before any of them were rebuilt. And, while the building looks normal enough, Ted Kyle, who is involved with the store, says it's super-efficient.

"What we had before, we couldn't hardly afford to heat and cool. It's just so much better than it ever was before, but we get to build a new normal. We get to build a new normal. I think that's exciting," Kyle says.

Mayor-elect Bob Dixson echoes that sentiment. "We live in exciting times here in Greensburg, and we need to be moving boldly into the future."

Achieving Platinum Certification

Students from the University of Kansas are working on a shoebox-shaped building, sheathed in green glass, shading wood recycled from an old ammunition plant. It's a new community art center, powered by sun, wind and heat from inside the earth.

The project is designed to LEED Platinum specifications, and it has been a learning experience for everybody, including professor Dan Rockhill.

"How tough is it to get a LEED Platinum certification? It's borderline impossible," Rockhill says.

Undaunted, at the John Deere farm-implement dealership, proprietor Kelley Estes says they are rebuilding LEED Platinum, too.

"Shops waste a lot of energy, like mine — tractor shops, combine shops. We're going to show how they can build them shops way more — have a payback for them all across the country. Well, if you do that all across the country, it's not just Greensburg that's paying back, it's the whole country," Estes says.

John Deere is making the store here a national model for the way dealerships should be built — just as Greensburg itself may prove to be a prototype for building communities sturdy enough to hold up against this century's crop of environmental, economic and social challenges.

Frank Morris reports from member station KCUR.

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