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How a Tornado-Stricken Town Became a Model of American Sustainability

March 4, 2014
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How a Tornado-Stricken Town Became a Model of American Sustainability
David McNew/Getty Images
Greensburg, Kansas has been called the littlest green town in America. Here's why.

Imagine that one day your town exists. Then, the next day, it doesn’t. That was the terrifying reality for residents of a small town located on the great plains of Kansas.

In May 2007, a devastating category EF5 tornado effectively destroyed Greensberg, Kansas. The storm flattened about 95 percent of the town’s homes and businesses and left 11 people dead and more than 60 injured. Like many communities devastated by natural disasters, Greensberg residents were determined to rebuild. But instead of just recreating the rural farm town that existed just days prior, they decided instead to look toward the future. In the process, this small rural farm town of around 777 people has become a model of sustainability.

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At the first meeting after disaster struck, town-resident-turned-community-organizer Daniel Wallach proposed rebuilding the town as a “model green community,” according to USA Today. Then-mayor Lonnie McCollum and then-governor Kathleen Sebelius (current U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services) agreed, and before long most of the town’s citizens were on board. Eight short months after the tornado leveled the town, the Greensburg City Council adopted a resolution stating that all large public buildings must meet LEED-platinum standards and utilize renewable energy sources. Everything from the new City Hall to the Kiowa Memorial Hospital to the local John Deere dealership were redesigned and built as the sustainable ideal. But that was just the beginning.

The wind that always blows through Greensburg now powers the town, as turbines can be found on farms, in residential neighborhoods and throughout the business community — even at the aforementioned John Deere dealership. Also, a large wind farm sits just outside of town. Inspiringly, the town creates more than enough energy to power the community, and as such, sells its surplus back to the grid. The streetlamps that line the streets are all LED—reducing energy costs even more. And local businesses have thought up innovative ways to be even more sustainable — from Centerea Bank, which absorbs stormwater with its own bioswale (a landscape element) to the John Deere dealership, which stores waste oil to heat the business in the winter.

Greensburg is not only a model for sustainability, but it also serves as a resource,too: Officials consult with other towns that have been ravaged by disaster to help them consider greener ways to rebuild, as well as cities that are just looking for a more sustainable future.

In this situation, Greensburg discovered that the grass really is greener on the other side.

 

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