From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And Im Michele Norris.
Three years ago, the town of Greensburg, Kansas, was destroyed by a tornado. Eleven people died, and 90 percent of the population found itself homeless. The town could have easily despaired and disappeared. Instead, residents decided to reinvent their community as the most energy-efficient in the country.
This story seemed a natural for the new public radio program called the State of the Reunion, distributed by NPR along with PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. The show explores the idea of community and things that unite people, as well as things that pull them apart.
For the recent anniversary of the tornado, program host Al Letson visited Greensburg.
AL LETSON: Im standing on Main Street, looking towards downtown. In the distance, there's a towering, concrete grain silo. It's one of the few structures that actually survived the tornado. But all around me, there's evidence of the devastation: piles of brick and debris; flat, empty lots filled with a dusting of snow and dirt; skeletons of trees that made up the beautiful arbor that this town was once known for.
But there is also new growth as well: a super energy efficient City Hall made from reclaimed brick and wood; an art center powered by sun and wind; and in the distance, a home modeled after a geodesic dome. Perhaps these are things that you wouldn't expect to find in rural, conservative Kansas.
The tornado of May 4th, 2007, was immense: more than a mile and a half in diameter. Now, the entire town of Greensburg is only slightly wider, just two miles. The twister had a perfectly formed eye, with winds sustained well over 200 miles an hour. With a force of nature that strong, nothing is left standing.
Sarah Schmidt and her husband, Harold, hid in the basement as the tornado raged overhead. It pulled off their roof and launched a truck into their house.
Ms. SARA SCHMIDT: The first thing I said was, there's a truck in here. And I didn't realize Harold had been picked up and carried across there. He answered me. He said, I know; it's on me. He said, can you try to move it? And I could see that the truck was onto him. But I couldn't move it. So then I just started screaming. My only thoughts from then now on - was for Harold, to get him out of there. And it took 12 men to lift it off of him. And he lived for 10 days. Every 48 hours, they did surgery on him, trying to save him.
LETSON: As Ms. Schmidt and the rest of Greensburg grieved their losses, the leadership of the town began to face some tough decisions.
Mr. JOHN JANSSEN (President, City Council): The first reaction of some people was, well, why are you going to even bother to rebuild? You know? And I said, I guess my reaction was the opposite; why not?
LETSON: That's John Janssen. And when the tornado hit, he was the city council president. It was his and the - relatively new to town -administrator Steve Hewitt's task to guide Greensburg into the future.
Mr. STEVE HEWITT (Town Administrator): The tornado destroying everything not only transformed the community physically, but mentally it allowed people to say OK, what were we like pre-storm? And if we were this declining community, what do we need to change to become this thriving, new community?
LETSON: Just days after the tornado, Hewitt, Janssen and the mayor at the time, Lonnie McCollum, all of whom had lost their homes, met near the spot where town hall used to be.
Mr. JANSSEN: I guess where we were in - in the tent down at the courthouse, probably. And we're sitting there going, you know, this is total devastation. We might as well do this right.
Mr. LONNIE MCCOLLUM (Former Mayor): We hadn't thrown the word green out there, but we were immediately talking about better buildings, smarter buildings, smarter grid, you know, better infrastructure. We started talking about the sustainable aspect. We didnt throw the word green out there yet.
Mr. JANSSEN: And within about 12 hours, Lonnie was doing this national TV interview, and he says: And by the way, we're going to rebuild green.
(Soundbite of train)
LETSON: Greensburg sits on a freight train line that cuts across the flat, open prairie. Before the storm, some 1,400 people lived here. Now there's just around 900. It's the kind of place where on summer evenings, people gathered at the local soda fountain, where the guy behind the counter had your favorite drink order memorized. There's only one stoplight in the town, and there's more churches then there are bars. It's claim to fame? It's home to the world's deepest hand-dug well. From where I stood, you couldnt even see the bottom.
Back when the well was dug in the 1800s, it was a simpler time then, and most Kansans lived off the land. Those low-impact methods of getting things done were commonplace. Greensburg's founding mothers and fathers were the original environmentalists: conserving water, using wind power.
But the thought of telling people to go green in red Kansas, is something that doesn't seem possible. Green in that save-the-planet sense is thought of as a four letter word here, associated with liberal, tie-dyed tree huggers. Slowly though, many of the residents came around to the idea.
(Soundbite of frying food)
Mr. SCOTT ELLER: Cooking some tacos with some refried beans in them. And then were going to fry those here in a little bit. We've got cheese dip...
LETSON: Jill and Scott Eller moved into their new home a year ago. It's sort of a geodesic dome that's been split in half to bookend a modern, two-story house. It's bright and wide, with a kitchen that fits their needs.
Ms. JILL ELLER: I think we entertain more now than we ever did before because for one thing, it's so open.
LETSON: Scott's family has been in the area for four generations. Jill moved to Greensburg 20 years ago. They both work in the oil field business. And like many of the residents who lived here, they were uncomfortable with environmentalism. Now, the Ellers know the lingo. They can deliver a discourse on R-factors, sips panels, ICF blocks, geothermal and LEED platinum certification. But it took a while.
Ms. ELLER: When they come up with the green idea, it didn't seem like a very big priority to us. We didn't know anything about it. And we're from Kansas; we don't change our ways very often. And we lost friends in the tornado. I thought, you know, they're talking about green, we had people that died here, you know.
LETSON: Today, they're glad about their decision to stick around and go green.
Mr. ELLER: People that have moved away say, you know, I wished we'd have thought about it a little more. Because they sure miss being here, being part of this community.
Ms. ELLER: Yeah. With the green initiative, it helped us to heal. It gave us something to look forward to.
Mr. ELLER: It gave us a goal.
LETSON: One of the latest projects nearing completion in the new Greensburg is a smart, brick, downtown business center with the words "To the stars through difficulties" chiseled into its keystone. That phrase seems to fit Sarah Schmidt perfectly. She thought hard about whether to rebuild or not, and discovered an answer growing in her yard.
Ms. SCHMIDT: I found this big coxcomb plant. I'd never seen a coxcomb plant so pretty.
LETSON: The tornado that destroyed Sarah Schmidt's house, took a husband of 54 years, it forced a woman in her 70s to completely transform her life. And yet unlike most of the other older residents of Greensburg, who have fled permanently to neighboring cities, she's chosen to remain with her town.
Ms. SCHMIDT: I looked at that and I said, through all that's it been - the machines that cleared off the cement - and how that little plant had survived. And so I told God, if this is what you want me to do, I'll do it. And that's when I made my decision. If that plant could grow through that, in Greensburg, I could. Here I am.
LETSON: For NPR News, Im Al Letson.