June 25, 2011 / 7:11 PM / in 8 years

Kansas town rises green from tornado rubble

GREENSBURG, Kansas (Reuters) - When community leaders in tornado-ravaged places such as Joplin, Mo., consider the future, they look to Greensburg, Kansas.

Kiowa County Memorial Hospital, one of several buildings in Greensburg, Kansas, with its own wind turbine is seen in this May 20, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Kevin Murphy

Destroyed by a powerful tornado on May 4, 2007, Greensburg is renowned for its rebirth as a community of sustainable living. The town has energy-saving buildings and landscaping at every turn, drawing curious public officials and tourists from around the world.

“Greensburg is certainly a great story,” said Steve Castaner, a long-term recovery manager for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “It’s a laboratory for how you can take advantage of opportunities to reinvent yourself.”

Next week, FEMA will host a “sustainable communities workshop” in Greensburg, attended by people from Joplin and two southeast U.S. communities recently damaged by tornadoes. They will learn how to follow Greensburg’s example.

The EF-5 tornado destroyed 95 percent of Greensburg, a town of 1,600 in the flat farmland of south central Kansas. Almost immediately, city, state and community leaders talked about bringing Greensburg back green, said Mayor Bob Dixson.

Greensburg’s population is down to about 800 because of a loss of housing stock and jobs, but it draws “a pilgrimage” of people who want to see sustainability at work, said Matt Deighton, a volunteer who gives tours of the town.

There is plenty to see.

The tornado destroyed many of the town’s large trees, so wind turbines now outnumber them. The town has a ten-turbine wind farm. The hospital has its own turbine, as does the public school and even the Best Western motel, which has saved 50 percent on its utility bill.

“As far as I know, we are the only hotel in the United States with a wind power generator,” said Ron Wright, owner of the Best Western Night Watchman Inn.

The new public school not only has a wind turbine but 97 wells dug 410 feet into the ground for a geothermal heating system that uses the 55-degree water to cool or warm air pumped into the building.

Like those of many buildings in town, the school’s windows are sized and positioned to make best use of natural light and the sun’s warmth.

The mayor had his house built with small windows on the north and larger ones elsewhere, and he used timber in four- or eight-foot lengths to reduce waste.

City Hall and several other buildings have rooftop solar panels to convert sunshine into electric power. Many homeowners have chosen to build energy-efficient houses.

In building anew, Greensburg used a lot of old materials. Bricks for the walls at city hall came from a power plant the tornado destroyed. The furniture store is made of bricks from the old store. Wood siding at the school came from trees damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Rain is not wasted. All through town are systems for filtering and capturing rainwater, which is stored in underground cisterns for irrigation when the weather is dry.

Greensburg is building a museum to herald what used to be its biggest claim to fame — the largest hand-dug well in the world — but also to tell the story of its green rebirth.

Its slogan is that it is “Stronger. Better. Greener.”

The community took advantage of various federal programs to build with sustainability in mind, but it took a spirit of public and private cooperation to be successful, Dixson said.

FEMA provided $80 million in subsidies for construction of city hall, the school and hospital, said Pam Reves, city treasurer. The U.S. Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory provided technical assistance and other guidance on sustainable construction in the public and private sector.

A key player is Greensburg GreenTown, a nonprofit organization that promotes green projects and gives tours. The town boasts the most LEED-certified buildings, a recognized system of measuring green projects, per capita in America.

The visit by officials from Joplin and the communities of Smithville, Miss. and Cordova, Ala., comes on the heels of an earlier visit by a delegation from Tuscaloosa, Ala., heavily damaged by a recent tornado.

Greensburg City Councilwoman Erica Goodman said Greensburg is ready with a message of hope for other communities.

“We can’t tell you want to do,” Goodman said. “We can only tell you what we have done and hopefully you can take that home and start your recovery.”

Writing and reporting by Kevin Murphy; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Ellen Wulfhorst

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