Kansas Town's Green Dreams Could Save Its Future After a tornado nearly destroyed Greensburg, Kan., in May, city leaders came up with a revival plan: make it the greenest town in America. Among the projects are new homes and buildings that are more efficient than the ones they replaced.
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Kansas Town's Green Dreams Could Save Its Future

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Kansas Town's Green Dreams Could Save Its Future

Kansas Town's Green Dreams Could Save Its Future

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Out on the vast prairie of Western Kansas, the tiny town of Greensburg is at the center of a grand experiment. Last May, one of the strongest tornadoes on record obliterated nearly every house, tree and business there. It killed 10 people and left nearly 1,400 without a place to live. The community was in steep decline before the storm, but city leaders think they can revive Greensburg and sustain it for generations to come.

As Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, they want to make Greensburg the greenest town in America.

FRANK MORRIS: Less than two days after last May's storm, as huge machines began to tear into the stunning wreckage of his hometown, School Superintendent Darren Hedrick managed to put a brave face on the disaster.

Mr. DARREN HEDRICK (School Superintendent): Towns are about people. They're not about buildings. And it's a huge opportunity to rebuild. And I think people are going to be view it as an opportunity, you know, not only bring it back the way it was, but maybe bring it back a little bit better than it was.

MORRIS: The buildings, books and records were all gone, Hedrick pledged to open school on time in the fall. And by golly, he did.

Ms. LAURA PROSER (Teacher): I need a Christmas hug.

MORRIS: Last week, Greensburg first-graders celebrated the end of an odd semester. Classes were held in small, white trailers muck like the FEMA trailers lined up a quarter-mile away, where most of these kids now live.

Their weary-looking teacher, Laura Proser, says winter break marks another welcome milestone.

Ms. PROSER: We got our new stoplight just yesterday. And everybody's so excited about that, oh, very optimistic, yeah.

MORRIS: Excited about getting a stoplight?

Ms. PROSER: Oh, well, you know, it may seem small to the rest of the world, but for us, it's a big step.

MORRIS: Greensburg has also some taken some really big steps. Duncan Prahl is in here from Pennsylvania, on contract with the National Renewable Energy Labs. He says the townhomes rising from the ragged tree trunks, weeds and ruins off main street mark a radical departure from traditional low-income housing.

Mr. DUNCAN PRAHL (National Renewable Energy Labs): They're building these homes to be actually LEED gold certified.

MORRIS: LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It's a rating system that rewards energy savings. Prahl says gold certification means these places will be almost twice as efficient. And building to this standard for working-class families is almost unheard of.

Mr. PRAHL: This is one of the first in the country. I mean, a lot of what's happening in Greensburg is some of the first in the country.

MORRIS: Much of the momentum here started with a guy named Danny Wallach just days after the storm.

Mr. DANNY WALLACH (Resident): I mean, it literally struck me, green in Greensburg. And at the time, I wasn't aware of just how perfect the timing in the national green movement was.

MORRIS: Leaders in the environmental movement had embraced this plan. The Discovery Channel is filming a kind of reality show here called "Greensburg Eco-Town," and green architects are working overtime. You might expect something of a culture clash in a place where Republicans drew more than 80 percent support in the last presidential election.

But Wallach says local folks have embraced environmental sustainability as good, old-fashioned thrift and independence.

Mr. WALLACH: They really get it. And they say, OK, it's not this crazy tree-hugger agenda, you know? It's common sense and it's what these people are really about.

(Soundbite of wind turbine)

MORRIS: I'm now about 43 miles from Greensburg, standing at the base of an enormous wind turbine, one of 67 out here in a new wind farm in Spearville. It's done. You'd think the wind would have let up a little bit, but it hasn't. In fact, it rarely does.

And that leaves people like Lynn Billman with the Department of Energy to believe that the very force of nature that obliterated Greensburg could play a major role in sustaining it going forward.

Ms. LYNN BILLMAN (Senior Analyst, Department of Energy): Yeah, it's a constant wind. I don't know, 16 miles an hour at 50 meters above the ground, and it's pretty steady. And that steady, moderate-strength winds is your best economic source for wind power.

MORRIS: One of these turbines, in fact one-half the size of these guys, would be more than enough to power Greensburg most days. Billman says the area has got great solar and geothermal potential. Even manure from local feedlots could be tapped for energy. As the city weighs its options for generating its own power, it's also getting serious about saving it. Last week, the council resolved that all new city buildings should meet the very highest environmental standard: LEED platinum.

Mr. STEVE HEWITT (City Manager, Greensburg): We're making hardier decisions.

MORRIS: City manager Steve Hewitt sits in a small office in one of the ubiquitous white trailers here. But from this humble vantage point, he's plotting to reverse the course of history. Before the tornado, Greensburg was shedding two percent of its population every year. Kids rarely came back from college. It was death by a thousand cuts. Now, Hewitt's thinking big - a new business incubator, the high school and an art center are all being designed LEED platinum.

Mr. HEWITT: And maybe it's a little crazy. There's only 14 platinum buildings in the United States. When it's all said and done, I'd like to have four or five here in Greensburg. And don't tell me that doesn't put us on the map when people are taking a hard, serious look at this community. I think it does.

MORRIS: An energy company has announced plans to build a biodiesel plant in Greensburg. Google is considering a wind-powered data center here. Several other companies are watching closely. Meanwhile, 100 new homes are going up, all of them more efficient than those they replaced.

(Soundbite of people talking)

MORRIS: About 200 Greensburg residents — that's close to a third of the town's current population — congregated in the brand new high school gym last week to talk over progress.

Robert Kilgore says he and his wife of more than 50 years are rebuilding with extra insulation, better windows, and heat and hot water on demand.

Mr. ROBERT KILGORE (Resident): This is the thing. Everybody is spending, we're going to do this. And to be successful, we just have to do it.

MORRIS: But there's a lot of uncertainty here. FEMA will cover the first 75 percent of the cost of restoring city buildings to their pre-storm level. Other federal grants and state help will cover most of the rest of the cost. But city leaders aren't talking about restoring things to their old level.

Resident Ed Stouth fears a big tax hike.

Mr. ED STOUTH (Resident): I'm all for everything in Greensburg. My golly, you know, everything got its price. There's no freebies.

MORRIS; Despite its murky future, Greensburg has already done something few small towns can - inspire its youth. Fifteen-year-old Levi Schmidt is at the meeting in a bright yellow African print shirt.

Mr. LEVI SMITH (Resident): Well, before the tornado, I was not going to come back. I was going to go to college and who knows where. This is - this community was dying. Now, I'm definitely coming back. And I know probably a good majority of my friends are.

MORRIS: For all of the enthusiasm here though, nobody thinks that reviving Greensburg is going to be easy. Darren Hedrick, the school's superintendent, who was so optimistic right after the storm, still is - though perhaps a bit more guardedly now.

Mr. HEDRICK: A lot of little towns are dying a slow death. And we had a fork put in us pretty hard. And it happened real quick and severely to us. So we have to try to find a way to resurrect that. And we hope we're making good decisions to do that.

MORRIS: As Greensburg, Kansas thrusts to leverage environmentalism to rebuild and sustain itself in the wake of near-total destruction, it just may unwittingly be writing a modern survival guide for rural America.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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