Twister Impetus for Turning Kansas Town Green One year ago this weekend, a tornado all but destroyed Greensburg, Kan. Since then, a remarkable transformation has taken hold. Even Leonardo DiCaprio is pitching in to rebuild a greener Greensburg.
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Twister Impetus for Turning Kansas Town Green

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Twister Impetus for Turning Kansas Town Green

Twister Impetus for Turning Kansas Town Green

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Tornados tore through parts of the country's midsection last night and today. At least seven people were reported dead in Arkansas. Tornados in Kansas City destroyed businesses and homes, several were blown entirely off their foundations. Twisters also touched down in Oklahoma and Texas.

BLOCK: These storms mark a sad anniversary. One year ago this weekend a tornado all but destroyed Greensburg, Kansas. Homes and businesses were flattened and 11 people were killed. Since then a remarkable transformation has taken hold. A new and different town is emerging in Greensburg. It's trying to rebuild in an environmentally friendly way.

Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

FRANK MORRIS: At six this morning, Greensburg broke ground on a new business incubator. Now, normally this kind of thing might warrant a picture in the local small town newspaper, but instead it was broadcast live on CBS. County economic director Jeanette Siemens, well, she's tickled.

Ms. JEANETTE SIEMENS (Director, Kiowa County Economic Development): This is a big, it's a huge day. Well, frankly, the whole week has been. What started out to be just a community celebration of surviving the year has just exploded into a national event, really.

MORRIS: President Bush will be here again Sunday, this time giving the high school commencement address. Film crews came last summer and never left. All because Greensburg has a focus - it's rebuilding green. The new business incubator like all city government buildings is designed to the very highest environmental standards. Federal grants didn't cover all the extra costs so city administrator Steve Hewitt managed to secure a million dollars from snack maker Frito-Lay. He was still almost a half-million dollar short when Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio picked up the phone.

Mr. STEVE HEWITT (City Administrator, Greensburg, Kansas): Well, Leonardo simply called and said, you know, listen, I hear you have gaps. I mean that's what he said to me: I hear there's a gap in the incubator, I want to help. I want to give.

MORRIS: Jeanette Siemens says that friends like that and all the national media attention are propelling this little Western Kansas town headlong into the fast lane.

Ms. SIEMENS: The name will be the same. The location will be the same. And a lot of the people will be the same, but there's of going to be a lot of new people too. And there's going to be certainly a whole new way of doing business.

MORRIS: These are heady times for Greensburg. The town will soon boast a concentration of super-high efficiency buildings. Well over a hundred houses are going up or under construction, and a brand new water tower sprung from the center of town. Bob Dixson is the mayor-elect.

Mayor-Elect BOB DIXSON (Greensburg, Kansas): It's sad that the tragedy as the storm came through and wiped us all out, okay? But that presented us a golden opportunity.

MORRIS: Amazingly, 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, Kansas.

(Soundbite of train honking)

Ms. CLARA LACY(ph): Yes, I miss it. It was a nice little town.

MORRIS: Clara Lacy was pregnant when the Udall tornado hit 53 years ago this month. She survived a 75-foot flight through the year, clutching her two young sons. Her house and the rest of the town was destroyed. Seventy-seven people died that night.

Udall sprang up again quickly though. Clara, her husband Ray and their three little boys were back in a new house by Christmas. But she says the town was never the same.

Ms. LACY: I think the people are not as close, it's more of a - do I want to say a bedroom town? People move in and rent and drive back and forth to work, and you don't know everybody anymore like we used to.

MORRIS: Just outside Pratt, Kansas, 30 miles from Greensburg, Lonnie McCollum is also feeling a bit isolated. McCollum was mayor of Greensburg when the tornado hit last year.

Mr. LONNIE McCOLLUM (Former Mayor): Our friends are dispersed a lot, and you're never going to replace that house. There's no way. And it's just - your life's been destroyed, and that's just all there is to it, it's just destroyed.

MORRIS: 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.

Mr. McCOLLUM: You know, I just don't even want to see it. I just don't want to see it. You know, I don't want to be reminded of it.

MORRIS: None of the sturdy folks rebuilding Greensburg expects to see the old town again.

Life-long residents still lose their bearings on the 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.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Greensburg, Kansas.

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