After Devastating Tornado, Kansas Town Re-emerges 'Like No Other Place In America'
People who were in Greensburg, Kansas, the night of May 4, 2007, talk of their ears popping, as if they were in an airplane descending at a rapid pace. The intense, almost painful ear popping was a result of the barometric pressure dropping as an EF5 tornado with a path nearly 2 miles wide and wind velocity of more than 200 m.p.h. churned its way through the community of 1,500 people.
It lasted about 15 minutes. When it was over, 12 people were dead and 960 homes and businesses destroyed. Some 200 homes and businesses received extensive damage. With the exception of a grain silo, the liquor store and one historic building, Greensburg no longer existed.
Located about two hours west of Wichita on U.S. Highway 54 near the Oklahoma state line, Greensburg, until that night, was known best as the home of the World's Largest Hand-Dug Well. An engineering marvel when it was built in 1888, even that Guinness Book entry did little to distinguish Greensburg from just about any other small-town, rural community in the U.S. But today, Greensburg is like no other place in America.
As they began to dig their way out of the rubble that had been their lives, the people of Greensburg realized two things: They didn't want their town to simply disappear, and they had a chance to do something remarkable.
While meeting in a little Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer identified as City Hall - part of "FEMA-ville," a cluster of about 300 trailers build on the edge of what had been the town - the City Council decided that as Greensburg rebuilt, it would be rebuilt in the most environmentally friendly manner possible.
Today, nearly six years after the tornado, Greensburg has more LEED-certified buildings per capita than any other community in the world. The K-12 Kiowa County School is LEED Platinum-certified. So are the city hall and the community building known as the County Commons, as is the Kiowa County Memorial Hospital, the first critical-access hospital in the U.S. to receive that designation. The Kiowa County Courthouse is LEED Gold-certified.
So is a building called the Silo Eco-Home, which serves as headquarters for Greensburg Greentown, the nonprofit organization that supports residents in the effort to rebuild Greensburg sustainably. Guests may even spend the night in a bed-and-breakfast designed to showcase green living. The building's name and design reflect the grain silo that survived the tornado.
The first building in the state of Kansas to be LEED Platinum-certified opened in Greensburg one year to the day after the tornado: The 5.4.7 Art Center, which gets its name from that infamous date, May 4, 2007, was a gift to the community from the architecture grad students at the University of Kansas.
"The day when the art center was dedicated might have been the first time that many of us realized we really could build a better community," says Ruth Ann Wedel, a lifelong resident of Greensburg who now gives tours of the city. "We have so many young people intrigued by what's going on here and moving to town to be a part of it all."
Stacey Barnes is one of those people. She had grown up in Greensburg but moved away for the opportunities provided in a larger city. A talented potter, she now coordinates art shows, classes and special events in the 5.4.7 Art Center that, prior to the tornado, residents would have had to travel more than an hour to experience.
About 85 percent of the artifacts in the volunteer-operated Kiowa County Historical Museum (top photo) were lost in the tornado. But when it was time to rebuild, 33-year-old Jim Crawley saw a once-in-a-lifetime chance to put his history degree and professional training to work by moving to Greensburg to build a new museum.
Sarah Thompson had dreams of opening a business that showcased her skills in repurposing almost anything into useful household items and décor. A native of a nearby community, she had trouble getting her business off the ground, until she came to Greensburg and opened REvival in a LEED-certified building designed especially for small businesses. She is young, innovative and successful, the type of person any community hopes to attract.
Today, the Kiowa County Schools have hired additional kindergarten and pre-K teachers to meet the needs of the many young families who have come to Greensburg. School officials report the largest number of elementary school pupils in the history of the school district, a solid indicator of the health of this community.
And the World's Largest Hand-Dug Well is still here, surrounded by an eco-friendly visitors center that tells the environmentally relevant story about this access point to the Ogallala Aquifer, a major source of water for the central part of the U.S. The visitors center also documents the history of Greensburg, including that horrible night in May 2007 and how Greensburg has become truly green.
[Top photo: Diana Lambdin Meyer]