Very early in the morning on May 5, 2007 I got a call from NBC News to hurry from Denver to Greensburg, Kansas. There had been a huge tornado and the town was devastated. Go! Go! When I pulled into the town six hours later I was stunned to see wreckage so complete that even the bark had been pulled off the trees. These skeleton sentinals stood over a community of people who were lost and dazed. The EF-5 tornado had 205 mile per hour sustained winds. Almost the entire town was in ruins. It was apocalyptic.
It was hard to imagine coming back from that scene or even having the will to rebuild, but Greensburg is a plucky town. One of the residents, who is now the mayor, Bob Dixson, had a sign on his property within days. It read "Future home of the Dixson family. We are blessed." They were still optimistic. I guess when you consider that 11 of their neighbors had died and many more were injured, they were among the lucky ones. I took a photo when I was out there covering the disaster. The powerful image made me feel hopeful.
The town decided to pull itself out of the rubble by capitalizing on the Green in Greensburg. They would come back environmentally friendly and create a community that was truly sustainable. Over the years I had pitched this story to various news outlets with little success, but when Budget Travel magazine singled Greensburg out as one of the coolest small towns in America I had a newsworthy hook and HDNet's Dan Rather Reports said let's do the story.
Almost five years later I returned to Greensburg, and what I saw was as stunning as that first post-disaster morning. The town is cleaned up and there are beautiful new buildings. The school, the hospital, City Hall and the John Deere dealership are all built back to the highest environmental standard called LEED Platinum. There is a pretty little Main Street with shops and even a business incubator sponsored by Sun Chips. People are living in new eco-friendly homes and are saving up to 2/3 on their utility bills. And there are wind turbines everywhere powering the community. Imagine using the same wind that destroyed you to help resurrect yourself!
Greensburg still has its work cut out for it. The town has half as many people as it once did but they are determined to repopulate. Like many of the small towns in rural America, Greensburg had been dying. But even after the tornado the folks there said we are not dead yet. So they set out to create a sustainable future, a vision for their tomorrow that would make Greensburg a place where children would want to stay, that would be attractive to new families, invite companies to relocate and create jobs and economic development.
What's extraordinary here is that folks in Greensburg are very conservative. These are not tree huggers, but they realized that by going green they could build a community of the future. Today they are an inspiration for other cities reeling from disasters, like tornado-ravaged Joplin, Missouri and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In a time when huge disasters seem to come at us with alarming frequency, Greensburg is showing us how to rebuild and recover. And the message they send is that green goes with their rural values. It is just common sense.
The foundation of a new Greensburg is in place. It has been a gut-wrenching process for people who lost everything to imagine something this big when it would have been so much easier to move somewhere else. As the town approaches the fifth anniversary of the tornado this May, they have an enormous amount to be proud about. I personally would like to go back in five years and see how much farther they have come. If you are traveling along Highway 54, pull off at Greensburg and see what's been accomplished. And if you can't do that, watch on HDNet's Dan Rather Reports to see the hard work and ingenuity that brought Greensburg back.
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