Devastated Kansas Town Goes Green

The tornado that ripped through Greensburg, Kan., three months ago was ferocious and unforgiving. More than 90 percent of the town was simply flattened and 10 residents died, including Norman Volz's wife of 34 years, Beverley.

"Our anniversary would have been a week ago last Saturday," Volz said. "Really that's the only reason I've kept going. She would have wanted me to."

Mother Nature dealt this community a devastating blow, but Greensburg is starting to bounce back. Since just a few days after the tornado, the small farming town has made ambitious plans for rebuilding green, from a wind farm at the electric plant to green homes and businesses.

Building From the Ground Up

"If we just make a little bit of progress every day, we're going to be OK. We're going to be just fine," resident and volunteer coordinator Matt Deighton said.

Gene Bender and wife Gerry were born in Greensburg more than 70 years ago.

"We're alive and we're going to rebuild and be happy," Bender said.

Every member of the high school football team has returned, and when school opens this morning in temporary trailers, three-quarters of the students will be back.

"We're not going to let this tornado disrupt our lives. … We want kids to understand that just because all of this is going on, they still need to have some normalcy in their lives," principal Randy Fulton said

Life has been anything but normal here since the storm. Of the town's 1,500 residents, only about half remain, many living in mobile homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"We haven't really started rebuilding or anything like that. We're just kind of taking it slow," said Shane Engelken, the quarterback of the high school football team.

The Emerald City

Before the tornado, Greensburg was a typical Midwestern farm town.

Now, it is essentially a blank slate. Thousands of tons of debris have been removed, and almost every structure in town is demolished.

Bold new ideas are taking shape here. Greensburg is thinking green, seeking to rebuild the town as a showcase of environmentally responsible living.

"If you are going to build a community from the ground up, it is our responsibility to think about the future," said city administrator Steve Hewitt.

Sketches of future plans for the city include a more walkable downtown and an energy-efficient city hall. Greensburg also hopes to leverage the strong winds in Kansas to power some of the town's electric needs.

"I think everybody wants to be part of something special. And here, why not Greensburg? Why not Greensburg? Here's something new. Here's something that's never been done before," Hewitt said.

Daniel Wallach, founder of the nonprofit organization Greensburg GreenTown, explained that green living comes naturally to his community.

"Self-sufficiency and independence are strong values out here. Farmers and ranchers all make their living from the land, so they have an awareness and sensitivity to it that is unique," Wallach said.

Residents are being encouraged to build energy-efficient homes, and the town is looking to the sun and the wind to help power its comeback.

"We may not have been thinking about it as much as we are now prior to the storm. But I think it's opened a lot of eyes to be looking at it now," said Greensburg homeowner and resident Brandon Hosheit.

Homeowners can choose to make adjustments to their building plans, like orienting their home toward the south for the best use of natural light, reducing water in the toilets and installing geothermal heating/cooling systems to reduce energy needs and costs.

Green Money

Many of the environmentally friendly concepts cost more upfront, with savings in the long term. The residents of Greensburg are trying to be creative in funding these opportunities, in applying for federal and state grants as well as private industry.

Homeowners can apply for lower mortgage rates for the energy-efficient homes through the federal government, and apply for private grants or build the costs into mortgages upfront.

FEMA has funded almost $4 million of the Greensburg recovery and an additional $28 million has been approved in small-business administration loans. Millions more have come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Labor.

Eye on Kansas

The recovery of Greensburg has caught the eye of Hollywood and Leonardo DiCaprio, who will be executive producing a 13-part series on the Discovery Channel in 2008 called "Eco-Town," which will detail the town's green rebuilding process.

Residents hope the attention will bring new businesses, money and opportunities into their town.

"As a model green community, people from around the country and around the world will come to see what the future looks like," Wallach said.

To learn more about green building check out these Web sites:

U.S. Green Building Council's Green Building 101