About: A decade ago, a tornado wiped out the small town of Greensburg, Kansas. But the town decided to rebuild—as a totally green community. Ten years out, has the green rebuilding program been successful, and is this a model that might be used by other towns? Or is going green harder than it seems?Download episode
Rebecca Sheir has been a host and reporter on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Splendid Table, and the Alaska Public Radio Network. Follow her on Twitter.
Dianna Douglas is a Placemakers producer. Douglas has completed two tours in Iraq as the NPR bureau chief in Baghdad and as an embed with the U.S. Army in Kandahar. Most recently, she was a reporter at KERA in Dallas.
Steve Hewitt, former city administrator of Greensburg, Kansas, is now CEO of the Kansas Turnpike Authority.
Rebecca Sheir: There’s a guy in Western Kansas who has seen disaster zones all over the world. And every time he visits another one—another hurricane, another earthquake, a flood or a war—it reminds him of his tiny hometown.
Steve Hewitt: We went to China after the bad earthquake in 2008. Yeah. It was just like, “This is the Greensburg disaster.” When a bomb goes off in the Boston Marathon, I think of Greensburg.
Sheir: Steve Hewitt is the former city administrator of Greensburg—a farming town of just 2000 people. Somehow, this job turned him into an expert on the extremes of human suffering. After a disaster strikes, Steve is someone people turn to for advice on how to bounce back.
Hewitt: We’ve been everywhere to try to talk about—you got to plan, you got to work, you got to think long term. I think I’ve learned a lot from other cities. We all have to help each other. If we’re going to be successful, this is not just our little idea.
Sheir: Steve’s “little idea” was to rebuild after a particularly cataclysmic event—with all green technology. And now people around the world want to know how he turned a disaster story into a model of environmentalism.
I’m Rebecca Sheir. From Slate magazine, this is Placemakers: stories about the spaces we inhabit, and the people who shape them. Today: a town is nearly wiped off the map, and city leaders try to coax people back by rebuilding in a completely different way, all under the glare of national attention. Placemakers producer Dianna Douglas traveled to Greensburg, Kansas, and brings us the story.
Douglas: On May 4, 2007, Greensburg, Kansas was doing fine. It had a courthouse, a grain elevator, a high school with a basketball team. Near the highway, it had a little museum over the world’s largest hand-dug well.
Headrick: It was a Friday night, a typical school night in the spring. We had school during the day. We had a track meet.
Douglas: Darin Headrick was with his friend Randy that night when tornado sirens went off. Those sirens go off a lot in this part of the country. So people wandered down to their basements. Cassie Kirby was at home with her husband and 4-year-old daughter.
Kirby: The sirens continued for quite some time. It might have been 20 minutes. I actually went upstairs a couple of times and I grabbed a couple of things off the wall.
TV footage: The national weather service has confirmed a large tornado on the ground so we really urge you to move to shelter.
Douglas: Her neighbor Steve Hewitt says the best time in Kansas to see your neighbors is when the tornado sirens go off—people will come sit on their porches to watch tornadoes spin in the distance. But this one was different. He went down to his basement and crouched under the stairs.
Hewitt: I held my son, my wife held the dog, and we rode this thing out.
Kirby: We could hear literally screeching—the big nails and the boards being pulled apart. It was very scary. I really felt like we probably, this was the end, this is how we’re going to die, because it was very scary, you know.
Hewitt: Came out when things were done. I looked up the stairs, I saw sky, kind of open, I was like, “Oh goodness, it knocked the backdoor off.” I walk up there and there’s no house left. There’s no house at my neighbors, there’s no house to the left to the right.
Douglas: Eleven people died that night. You might remember this disaster. It was an EF-5, the strongest tornado possible. Basically every building and house in Greensburg was rubble—brick, cement—didn’t matter. The Federal Emergency Management Agency—FEMA —rolled in, and took everyone to a temporary shelter in a nearby town. The whole town under one roof, eating cold sandwiches out of paper bags and telling stories about surviving the tornado.
Hewitt: That next morning right after the tornado, somebody had to go talk to the media, we had national media there. I knew right away that I didn’t want to be that typical rural American goofball that’s on there, looks like a joke on TV. I wanted to portray, “Hey this is a serious situation, but we’re professional and we’re going to figure it out, we’re going to clean it up, we’re going to rebuild.” It was also, “Hey we’re going to need some help.”
Douglas: Steve Hewitt wanted to get this message not only to the whole country, but to his neighbors. Their losses began to sink in. Shock and adrenaline were giving way to despair. FEMA gave every resident a temporary trailer, in a field outside of town. Gawkers came, and looters came to pick through the rubble of Greensburg. Volunteers came, too, and people all over the country sent care packages.
Douglas: President George W. Bush stopped by and hugged people. And the governor of Kansas at the time, Kathleen Sebelius, met with Steve Hewitt.
Kirby: People would bring things to the school to try and help that we couldn’t really always deal with too well, like maybe encyclopedias that were 30 years old
Hewitt: Gov. Sebelius asked me, “What’s the plan, Steve?” We started talking about building smart, building better, building for the future, building for the next generation. We kept talking about that.” She goes, “You’re going to build it green.” I said, “Yeah, sure, absolutely. That’s exactly what we’re doing, smart, green, we’re going to do the right thing. We’re going to do the right thing.” Went out to a press conference with her. She goes, “I just got done meeting with the city of Greensburg representatives , and they’ve committed to build this community back green.” I stood there and said, “Yeah, yeah, absolutely.” It just all of a sudden that gained a lot of energy.
Douglas: Think back to 2007, and people’s interest in green building. Bamboo floors and compost bins and LED lights were becoming not just something that hippies and Hollywood stars did, but that anyone could do. Suddenly, everything was “going green”—from NASCAR races to baseball parks. When Steve Hewitt said on television that Greensburg would rebuild bigger, better, and greener—people and corporations all over the country perked up, and started offering to help.
Hewitt: I’m not a marketing major, I’m not any kind of guru when it comes to that, but I will say that you do have to brand your community and you got to have an identity. Immediately, it became very clear this is a great thing, we’ll be something that rural Kansas has not even thought about. And it just was like this momentum engine, this momentum just kept growing and growing.
Douglas: Hewitt wanted the City Council to pass a resolution that every new building in town would be certified LEED platinum. That’s L-E-E-D—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Building projects earn points to achieve different levels of LEED certification—silver, gold, and platinum. Platinum certification is really tough, and going for that would prove to everyone that they were serious about environmentally friendly building, and not just green-washing a building boom.
Hewitt had some convincing to do.
Hewitt: There’s a lot of people, there’s still people today probably that’ll tell you, “Just get out of the way and go fast, build it quick, don’t mess with building permits, don’t mess with green. Just get it built up and get your life back normal.” Well guess what? Life was never going to be normal again.
Douglas: This is a very conservative part of the country, so the end of “normal” wasn’t all it took to persuade people in Greensburg. Anything that smelled liberal was out. Hewitt appealed purely to the practical side of his fellow Kansans: the energy savings and the tax breaks. And another thing that helped Hewitt as he talked up this idea: the community’s deep Christian faith.
Tim Lenz: There is this concept of stewardship that is preached in the churches and it’s an ethic that a lot of people out here have. I don’t see that’s far from the tree hugging hippies, it just takes on a different appearance.
Douglas: That’s electrical engineer Tim Lenz, who lives in Wichita. There’s idea of “creation care”—If you haven’t been in a megachurch in a while—it’s the belief that God created the earth, and humankind has a duty to care for it.
Lenz: I grew up with a great respect for the environment but I’m far from a left leaning person. I’m your typical Midwestern, conservative, Republican voting guy.
Douglas: Somehow, Hewitt’s arguments won over the farmers and gas pipeline workers and retirees of Greensburg. The city council passed the resolution – any building done with public money had to be done at LEED platinum standards. And then, national corporations started invested in Greensburg, maybe looking for a green glow from association with this scrappy little town on the plains.
A film crew started following Steve Hewitt and others around, for a documentary about creating a green utopia. The executive producer? Leonardo Di Caprio. They interviewed dozens of people in Greensburg. Some railed against the green boondoggle to the cameras, saying it was wasn’t the right fit for a town in extremis.
Film audio: “This whole green idea doesn’t mean much to me, to be honest. I think the most important thing is to do whatever it takes to get people back into town, instead of fighting so hard for the green…”
Hewitt: Somebody come up to me and say, “You’re an idiot. Why are we doing this? You’re killing the town.” Those second thoughts, second guessing thoughts. Again, you just got to go with it and deal with it, but I don’t forget those conversations.
Douglas: Every person in town had to decide whether to stay and rebuild their house or cut their losses and move. In the first couple of years after the tornado, Greensburg had no stores, no jobs, nothing. People were under incredible stress. The mayor quit.
Hewitt: I remember getting sick I was working so much, physically just breaking down. I don’t forget those things either. Living in a FEMA trailer for a couple of years, no running water, losing all my belongings and basically becoming homeless for a number, my wife didn’t see me for the first week except on television when I’m giving press conferences.
Douglas: Hewitt and his wife took a break from their trailer in 2008, and went to Washington, D.C. They were guests of Laura Bush during the State of the Union address. Greensburg had been the first major disaster since the government had bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. A lot of people in the administration of President George W. Bush wanted to get Greensburg’s recovery right. Hundreds of millions of dollars came their way. And they used it to build the highest concentration of LEED buildings per capita in the world.
Sheir: Getting a building certified as LEED Platinum is no small commitment: to reach that level, you have to hit a massive number of criteria set by the U.S. Green Building Council. After the break, the folks in Greensburg find out just what they’ve signed up for.
From Slate magazine, it’s Placemakers. I’m Rebecca Sheir. When we left off, we were talking about one town’s decision to rebuild after a natural disaster—and to do it in the most energy-efficient way possible. Right away, the world noticed.
Barack Obama: I think about Greensburg, Kansas, a town that was completely destroyed by a tornado, but is being rebuilt by its residents as a global example of how clean energy can power an entire community—
Sheir: That’s President Barack Obama in 2009.
Obama: —how it can bring jobs and businesses to a place where piles of bricks and rubble once lay. “The tragedy was terrible,” said one of the men who helped them rebuild. “But the folks here know that it also provided an incredible opportunity.”
Sheir: The tornado happened nearly a decade ago. So, what’s Greensburg like today? We’ll head back there now, with Placemakers producer Dianna Douglas.
Douglas: Greensburg gets visitors from all over the world, curious about the little town that embraced environmentalism with its whole heart. They can tour the SunChips business incubator on Main Street. The arts center down the street, built by the University of Kansas. These were the first and second LEED platinum buildings in Kansas. And then the John Deere tractor dealership, and city hall, and more downtown shops—all LEED platinum certified.
Locals used to lead tours through the dozens of LEED platinum buildings for a few bucks. But interest has slowed recently.
Personally, I found walking through the buildings in Greensburg wonderful. Darin Headrick showed me around the new school. He’s superintendent, and has 300 kids here from all over the county—ages pre-K through high school.
Headrick: The lockers are all recycled plastic, so milk jugs, pop bottles.
Douglas: They’re big.
Headrick: You can get two freshmen in them, I think.
Douglas: This new school cost 44 million dollars, money from FEMA, insurance, and donations. The school it replaced was a hundred years old. This building is quiet—there is no A/C blowing. It smells fresh because the carpets and paints can’t have that heavy chemical smell. And most of the light is natural. Like in Headrick’s office—it has floor to ceiling windows.
Headrick: I enjoy the day whether it’s a rainy day, a cold day, a windy day. I enjoy the day because I’m a part of it. I’m not in a cubicle with no windows not knowing what’s going on outside.
Douglas: The school uses about a quarter of the energy that most public schools use. A wind turbine spins furiously behind the varsity football field. The whole town is powered by wind energy, so wind turbines are everywhere. It’s like they replaced the trees—which haven’t really grown back since the tornado.
The buildings in Greensburg reuse rain water. Some have a carpeting of plants on the roofs. They have geothermal heating and cooling. They’re built with recycled wood and bricks. There’s no light pollution at night—no blocking out the stars with big lights in the parking lots.
It wasn’t easy to get to this point, at least for the building contractors. They hadn’t been trained in how to build to LEED standards before the tornado hit. Here’s electrical engineer Tim Lenz.
Lenz: Really in Greensburg was our first real experience. We’d heard the concepts, we’d talked about it, the cost of LEED scared people.
Douglas: Lenz’s firm worked on rebuilding the John Deere tractor dealership, some storefronts downtown, city hall, a courthouse, a sheriff’s office and jail.
Lenz: Our normal design practices really got us to about a silver level as far as LEED goes, but to get the gold and the platinum level, took some extra effort.
Douglas: For instance, they couldn’t throw away packing materials when parts were shipped to the site—they had to drive them to Wichita for recycling. They took concrete debris that was left over from the tornado, and pulverized it into a gravel parking lot or a sub base for the pavement. It was a major change in how builders normally worked. Some couldn’t do it, and had to sit out the post-tornado construction boom in Western Kansas.
For Darin Headrick, the extra work to get to LEED platinum paid off—not only in lower electricity bills, but in psychological ways for the town.
Headrick: The county population was declining. The number of businesses on Main Street was declining. It was a typical rural community dying a very slow death. If we built something back just the way that it was prior to the tornado, really our future was already predestined for us.
Douglas: But Darin Headrick and his wife are moving away—to Wichita, for work. The governor of Kansas keeps cutting school funding, and Headrick doesn’t think his job in a small town is safe.
Steve Hewitt and his family moved away, too, in 2011. He won national awards like municipal leader of the year and public official of the year for his handling of the Greensburg rebuild. But things changed. The town elected another new mayor—three in as many years. I think he and Steve had divergent views on what was best for Greensburg. But people only insinuate such things in small towns—they certainly don’t say them to reporters holding tape recorders.
They are very willing to say, however, that certain green ideas have failed.
I walked through the business incubator with Greensburg’s new city administrator, Kyler Ludwig. For him, the bathroom is exhibit A for the ironies about LEED.
Ludwig: One of the things that earns us points is a shower because it encourages people to ride their bikes to work and they can shower. We leave in such a small rural community; there’s not a whole lot of people that bike. I walk to work, and so I don’t need to take a shower.
Douglas: The city still has to pay for upkeep of this shower. Ludwig also shut down the use of collected rainwater in the toilets in here. It was brown and was staining the porcelain, he says. People kept flushing and flushing, not wanting to leave a brown toilet. It’s not just unintended waste that’s a problem for Ludwig. It’s everyday logistics. We go to the maintenance room.
Ludwig: This is one of those buildings that, when a problem happens, typically the problem is happening on the computer. It’s not like you can hire a handyman from your town that knows how to fix something. You need an IT guy.
Douglas: When the heating or electricity in here goes offline, Ludwig has to hire a technician from Wichita, who will charge at least $1,000 to make that long drive. We head outside to look at the system that was built to collect rainwater. Now they’re just deep planter boxes in the sidewalk, full of dirt. It didn’t rain enough in Greensburg to flush the system.
Ludwig: We gave up on the cisterns here on Main Street. Something we’ve really learned is you can’t just take a concept that works in Kansas City, you can’t just take a concept that works on the east coast. These green concepts really need to be something that works in your area based on your environment.
Douglas: One more thing—this is gross, but all the low-flow toilets in town mean the sewer system has a too many solids, not enough water. So he has to unclog the city sewers.
Steve Hewitt says Greensburg was a living laboratory, and sure, some environmentally friendly building techniques didn’t work.
Hewitt: You live and learn on some of that stuff. Greensburg doing it now allows these other communities to go out there, talk to Greensburg, talk to how they did it, what worked, what would you tweak today. I only knew what I knew then, not what I know today, I think yeah it’s live and learn, but that’s okay. It had to happen.
Douglas: Hewitt’s optimism is pretty powerful. He’s the guy I would trust if my house were on fire. Of course he helped these beautiful, futuristic buildings rise out of the frozen ground, where the broken glass, wooden beams, pink insulation, and garbage was once 10 feet deep. So why did he move away? And why does he avoid visiting Greensburg now. Even though he was born there?
Hewitt: I feel like I should go back a lot more but then again they’ve moved on. They don’t need me. But I go check it out but then, oh, you know. I don’t know. I don’t want to step on the mayor’s toes.
Douglas: In all, the population of Greensburg is down to around 800 people, from 2000 before the tornado. There just aren’t enough jobs. They have tourism, sure. In fact the town just built a new museum over the world’s largest hand-dug well. The mayor’s daughter, Stacy Barnes, is Greensburg’s tourism director, and she showed me around. She has to explain a lot that this building is actually not LEED platinum.
Barnes: We have low-flow fixtures in the bathrooms, LED low-energy lighting, the heating and air conditioning unit is a very energy-efficient unit. A green roof was part of the original design of this building, but because of budget, that got cut out. Part of sustainability is being able to afford it.
Douglas: Barnes says building practices have changed so much since 2007, that it’s easy to build green without needing LEED certification. Steve Hewitt can’t hide his disappointment that the town is backing away from their pledge to build LEED platinum.
Hewitt: Why not? Just didn’t do it I guess. Don’t really have an answer. To save a couple of hundred thousand dollars. In the scheme of a lifetime in the next hundred years, what’s a couple hundred thousand dollars? Nothing really.
Douglas: Greensburg also just opened a swimming pool. A few environmentalists in the area wanted it to be chlorine-free—a pilot for sustainable pools. But, no.
The environmental initiatives in Greensburg these days are painless: They are starting a bike share. The city code now allows people to raise chickens in backyards. Everyone plants trees on Arbor Day.
Town leaders are looking for ways to bring new jobs into Greensburg. And they are trying to help people who are still traumatized from the tornado—coping with losing their homes, their neighborhoods, and all the places where they had built a lifetime of memories. It’s a lot to ask from a struggling little town in Kansas to also be the symbol of LEED building forevermore.
Hewitt: That was the single biggest best decision that community ever made was to rebuild green. Even the challenges and the costs, it cost 10 or 20 or 30 percent more now, it’s going to save you many, many more dollars long term.
Douglas: Steve Hewitt shared this message after the earthquake in China. This is what he said to leaders in Joplin, Missouri, after another EF-5 tornado. And to flooded gulf coast towns. He’ll keep sharing it, since the disasters keep coming.
Sheir: Almost nine years after the sky went dark in Greensburg, and a tornado leveled the town, things went dark again. But this time it was inside city hall, on Feb. 29, 2016. Leap year. The computer that runs the electrical system didn’t recognize the date. No one could turn on the lights, so the folks who run Greensburg went out and bought plug-in lights so they could do their jobs.
Just goes to show you: when it comes to real life—in a real, rural, small town—it isn’t necessarily easy being green.
Our story today was reported by Dianna Douglas.
Placemakers is a production of Slate magazine and is produced by Mia Lobel, Dianna Douglas, and Michael Vuolo, and edited by Julia Barton. Our researcher is Matthew Schwartz. Eric Shimelonis does our mixing and musical scoring. Our theme was composed by Robin Hilton. Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. I’m Rebecca Sheir.
For more information about today’s show and other episodes of Placemakers, go to slate.com/placemakers. You can drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org You can follow us on Twitter; our handle is @SlatePlacemaker. And if you like what you’re hearing, please give us a review or rating on iTunes. It really does help.
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