GREENSBURG, Kansas, May 4, 2008— -- President Bush returned here today with praise for the revitalization of a town that was nearly wiped off the map exactly one year ago and is now rebuilding itself as the greenest rural town in America.
"To reach this day, the Class of 2008 has overcome challenges unlike those faced by any other graduating class. You have spent a year in portable classrooms that look very different from the red brick school you attended as freshmen," he said. "Many of you have gone home to trailers that lack the comforts of the houses you lost."
At 6-foot-5, student body president David Cesmat dwarfs the FEMA trailer where he spent his senior year after the tornado swept his home away.
While half the town's 1,400 residents left, his family stayed and Cesmat led Greensburg's high school basketball team, the Rangers, to the state championship for the first time in 30 years.
"It's been a stressful year, but it's also been a year of encouragement and just seeing the town, where it's at right now, it's awesome and very encouraging," Cesmat told ABC News.
On his way to address the only high school graduation he has ever attended as president, Bush drove through a smattering of new homes, each with a cement-encased safe room to protect the families living there from future tornados, and down Main Street, which -- along with 95 percent of the town's structures -- had been blown away by a twister a mile and half wide.
Until last year, Greensburg was best known as the home of the world's largest hand-dug well and a thousand-pound meteorite. It was a rust-belt town with a dwindling population, built on agriculture, oil, gas and trucking.
The tornado left stacks of wood in place of houses, the battered hulks of cars, an occasional flag and the town's two quirky tourist attractions, which will be housed in a new museum and visitor's center.
Where many saw only loss, city planner Steve Hewitt saw a chance to rebuild Greensburg into an environmentally conscious model for other struggling rural communities.
"It's a tragedy what happened, but we do have a blank slate, and you have to see your opportunities and take advantage of those opportunities," Hewitt told ABC News.
Greensburg has committed to become the first town in the nation where all major buildings get the highest rating of the U.S. Green Building Council, using 42 percent less energy than buildings built to standard codes. A new arts center will be powered by wind turbines.
"Nobody was talking to Greensburg about industry or new business before the storm," Hewitt said. "Now I have business after business after businesses calling me, wanting to talk about what we can do."
The main obstacles are time and money. Building green takes longer, and costs about 10 percent more, though the money is later recovered in energy savings.
So Greensburg residents are living a little longer in a trailer village they call FEMAville, after the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which brought the trailers. And they attracted outside sponsors ranging from Frito-Lay to actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
Through it all though, Cesmat and the rest of the Greensburg Class of 2008 have learned that this is one community that is stronger than any storm.