Tornado-ravaged Kansas town rebuilding "green"

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After a monster tornado devastated Greensburg, Kan., one year ago this Sunday, the city faced tragedy and the daunting task of rebuilding from scratch.

It also got an opportunity, Mayor John Janssen says.

This rural county seat 109 miles west of Wichita has made "green" its rebuilding mantra, declaring itself a national model for environmentally conscious living - and winning attention and resources in the process.

"The tornado was one of the biggest blessings to hit our town," Janssen says. "We were like every other town in the Rust Belt and the Midwest. We were dying a slow, agonizing death. Suddenly, we don't have a town. So we're rebuilding a new green town."

The decision to rebuild in an environment-friendly manner is not just about feeling good, he says. Environmentally conscious design can cost more up front, but the costs are made up through energy savings, he says. The city hopes to attract new residents and businesses committed to green living.

"We've got green industry that has been looking for a green community to locate into," he says. He didn't go into specifics. "The contacts we've made boggle the imagination."

About 1,400 people lived in Greensburg before the twister, working mostly in agriculture, oil, gas and trucking. The town's main attractions were "the world's largest hand-dug well" and a 1,000-pound meteorite. Both survived.

After most of the homes and businesses were wiped out, the population fell to about 700, says Kim Alderfer, assistant city administrator. About 140 families live in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, and 141 homes are under construction or completed. The water tower went up in March.

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'A living lab'

Besides houses, there are about 30 buildings in various states of construction whose owners are committed to building green, says Daniel Wallach, executive director of Greensburg GreenTown, a non-profit group that promotes the city's green initiatives.

"We're building a living lab," he says.

Greensburg became the first city in the nation to pledge that all city-owned buildings larger than 4,000 square will get the highest rating of the U.S. Green Building Council, called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum, the council says. The buildings are expected to use 42% less energy than building code standards allow.

There will be at least three LEED Platinum city buildings, Janssen says: a city-owned mini-mall, City Hall and the museum and visitor center for the meteorite and well. City Hall will have solar panels to produce some of its electricity and will be constructed partly of recycled bricks, some from buildings destroyed in the tornado, says Steve Hewitt, city administrator. Eventually, city officials say, 100% of Greensburg's electricity will come from renewable sources such as wind and solar power.

"It's good business sense," Janssen says. "You're rewarded for it because you save money in the long run and you save the environment. Not a bad combination."

Some local businesses, including the John Deere and General Motors dealerships, are building green, too.

The 26,000-square-foot John Deere dealership will aim for a LEED Platinum rating, co-owner Mike Estes says. Among other things, it will have a pond to catch rainwater for landscaping and low-water faucets, he says. Two wind turbines will produce electricity for the building.

Colleges are contributing to the town's green initiative. University of Kansas architecture students are building an arts center they hope will be LEED-certified in part for its use of solar panels and reclaimed wood.

Homeowners are not required to build green, but the city hopes they will. The response has been mixed.

"There are some people who think it might be more expensive," says Lynn Billman of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which is offering technical assistance. "There might be a small increase up front with the mortgage cost, but they'll have a lower monthly cash outlay because utility bills will be lower."

John Holton, an architect and engineer in the Greensburg NREL office, says he and a colleague have advised about 40 families. Among the things they discuss is the home's placement on the lot, to determine the way sunlight enters the house, and use of fluorescent lights. His basic advice: "Insulate right and build it tight."

Builders can get tax credits for building homes that are at least 30% more energy-efficient than homes built to standard codes, Holton says.

Long-term savings

NREL has evaluated the building plans of Mennonite Housing, a non-profit organization that provides home repair and housing to the elderly and people with low and moderate incomes. The group is building 20 homes in Greensburg in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the United Way.

Mennonite Housing has not used "green" techniques before. Its Greensburg homes will have energy-efficient appliances, high-grade insulation and thermal-pane windows that can cut heating and cooling costs, President Andy Bias says.

The homes would cost about $100,000 each to build conventionally, he says, but the group is hoping to lower the owner's cost to $60,000 through volunteer labor and donated or discounted materials. The cost is about the same as for houses that do not have those features, he adds, so the group plans to incorporate green elements into its future projects elsewhere. "It's affordable," he says.

Alan Todd, a fourth-generation Kiowa County resident who lost his home in the tornado, says he can't wait to move into one of the homes, which will have three bedrooms, two baths and a basement, a two-car garage and a "safe" room reinforced with concrete for tornadoes.

Todd, 38, is pleased that his new house will have energy-efficient appliances and materials and says he wouldn't have known how to build green on his own. "It saves the environment and it saves you money," he says. "If you have to buy only half the natural gas the next 25 years, it'll be a real good deal."

Mostly, Todd says, he's relieved he'll have a home to return to in Greensburg, which he calls his "belonging place."

"I'm looking forward to being back where I belong," he says, "and feeling settled."

Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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