Rebuilding after Disaster – Greensburg Becomes a Green Town
On Friday, May 4, 2007, an EF5 tornado cut a two-mile-wide swath of absolute destruction through Greensburg, Kansas. This was the largest tornado in recorded history, and it reduced Greensburg to rubble. Eleven people were killed in Greensburg that evening, while 22 other tornadoes swirled violently across the state. Every building in Greensburg was damaged or destroyed.
Under such dire circumstances, it would have been easy for the townspeople to give up and walk away. But that’s exactly the opposite of what happened.
Just one week after the tornado, while residents were still surrounded by debris from shattered buildings, 500 people attended a town meeting o figure out how to rebuild their community. Residents came together in a spirit of collaboration and hope — perhaps surprising for people who had lost everything in a single storm.
Neighbors came, too, including Daniel Wallach and Catherine Hart, whose home 35 miles away had escaped an EF4 tornado by only 2 miles that same evening.
The Wallachs wanted to help their neighbors recover from the disaster. “My wife and I took a concept paper about a green initiative to this gathering,” he says. Their concept paper described a new Greensburg — not the town as it once was, but a re-envisioned sustainable community.
Social Entrepreneur and Environmentalist
Wallach describes himself as a social entrepreneur. “I have done work as a non profit. I have done business work. I was a student of philosophy. My wife and I ended up in rural Kansas to get away from it all, and moved, quite literally, to the middle of nowhere for the past several years.
“We were both thinking about going back to our own work, and we had some ideas. I have always been an environmentalist, and I was thinking about creating a website related to green sustainability. That was literally a month before the tornado hit.”
The Wallachs, themselves, had experience with loss. Catherine was recovering from a brain tumor, and Daniel suffered the effects of health issues incurred in childhood. Their choice of rural Kansas as a place to recuperate had been deliberate. “Neither one of us was able to work for ten years,” he says. “So, we were tending to our inner environment, if you will, and understanding the connection between that and the external environment.
“Environmental illness is a symptom of being disconnected from the earth. That was what brought us out here to nature.”
The Wallachs felt compelled to reach out to their neighbors in need.
“Greensburg’s is a story of being stripped bare of everything you thought you knew and having to start over. Here was an opportunity to work with a community that was experiencing the kind of loss and suffering that my wife and I know firsthand — relatively few people really know that in the same way we do. And that is important; it is important that we have experienced loss, too. We thought we had something to give.”
Reinventing the Town’s Identity
While researching the prospects of selling natural fruits and local foods in rural Kansas, over the past several months, Wallach had visited a number of small towns. As is happening across the nation, most small towns in rural Kansas are losing their population — and their identity.
“It is really obvious that a small town that thrives has a distinct identity and a strong community,” he says. “So as I was lying in bed thinking about how to help, I knew that this green initiative potentially could be the identity for this town.”
Yet, he anticipated obstacles. “About 40 years ago, this area, like the rest of politically conservative America became very politicized around environmental issues. And environmentalism became a red state/blue state issue. So I was concerned about that when I went to the town with this concept paper.
“But instead of meeting resistance and skepticism,” he continues, “the first thing I heard was the city administrator and the mayor saying, ‘We want to rebuild it in an environmentally friendly way.’ ”
Even the governor of Kansas was interested in a sustainable future for Greensburg. So the Wallachs presented their proposal to the Governor’s office, gaining “a tremendous amount of momentum and synergy” in the process.
Relying on his nonprofit experience and background in community organizing, Daniel then made a proposal to the mayor of Greensburg, the president of the city council, and the city administrator. “Since they had their hands full, I offered to help spearhead the initiative by establishing this organization,” he says, speaking of the Greensburg GreenTown nonprofit he founded.
“The response was overwhelmingly positive. So we went out and did a huge amount of informational interviewing with people,” he adds. “If it was truly going to be a sustainable community, the folks in the community had to help define that. It was a combination of helping paint a picture of the vision and combining that with feedback from the people about what they wanted and did not want.”
Bridging the Red and the Blue
One thing that Wallach came to understand was that, though “environmentalism” smacked of liberalism for many residents, it was a concept they could fundamentally support — once politics got out of the way.
“For me,” Wallach says, “it became abundantly clear that the people of Greensburg had a tremendous amount to offer to the environmental movement. They were the missing link. We had come to this political stagnation as a result of the politicization of the movement. And if we could re-frame the issue and get the people involved, then we could do incredible things.”
Talking with Wallach, it seems surprising that Kansans would have rejected environmentalism as a “liberal” cause. “I discovered that people out here in rural areas are far more connected to nature and to their roots. Early Kansans lived with the sun,” he says. “They collected rainwater. They were the first to use the windmill. They’re innovative. They’re conservationist. They hate waste. They’re the original recyclers. All of these things make them environmentalists. They won’t call themselves that because it was politicized; yet it is what they are. So, Greensburg GreenTown was my opportunity to help build bridges between the red and the blue.”
Asked to explain how he thinks the environmental issue became so politicized, Wallach says, “It’s about tribalism. The issues become a person’s identity. To be entirely environmentalist — or anti-environmentalist — is actually an identity. So you have to uncouple that and say, ‘You cannot politicize the water. You have as much or more concern for your family or your children and their well-being as anybody, so why let somebody else own these issues?’
“As I became more a part of the community, it became obvious that these people were no different than where I originally came from, and we had a lot of common objectives. My favorite thing about working with people in crisis, or coming out of crisis, is that they are much more open-hearted and connected to their natures.”
Envisioning a New Community
While rural communities around the nation are losing population, and storefronts sit empty, what hope could there be for rebuilding Greensburg?
“It was a good time for the community to reexamine things,” Wallach says. “One of the things that was often talked about is the fact that, like rural communities elsewhere, with so many elders in the population, Greensburg was dying.
“Agriculture has become so centralized, so mechanized, that there are very few jobs left in it. It is said now that the average farm has to be 2,000 acres to be viable economically. How can you have any kind of community when you’ve got one family every 2,000 acres? It doesn’t work. The people of Greensburg understood that their way of life was dying, and they were clinging to philosophies that were contributing to their demise. So how could that be reversed?
Wallach expects to change that trend by helping support the building of an eco-community that will attract visitors and provide a better way of life for residents of Greensburg.
“When we talk about the green initiative, we are very well embraced by youth. It gives them enthusiasm and a vision of living within a community in the future. For 40 years that hasn’t happened in this community. Young people just moved away. And they didn’t come back, because they couldn’t afford to.”
“What is most significant in this whole thing is that there truly was a community comeback. You have all these different leaders, who normally may be territorial and adversarial, but were very much on the same page. They all got the vision of a modern, green community. However they came to it, they did so.”
The town’s businesses and the municipality are eligible for disaster funding, which provides only 75 percent of a building’s previous value before the disaster. Residents who had no insurance were eligible to receive only $26,000. That leaves a huge gap in funding to rebuild — let alone to build with improvements in energy efficiency that cost more up front but save money later on.
“It’s a little hard to be progressive when rebuilding under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) guidelines,” Wallach says. “But I think, actually, that Greensburg has helped to shift FEMA’s thinking to understand that you need to look at the long-term view and return on investment.
NREL (the National Renewable Energy Laboratory), which is a program of the Department of Energy, is a huge player here, providing technical and planning support. They really helped us shape our vision and get us the resources we needed. Residents, businesses, and municipal entities all had access to the best minds in the world on energy efficiency and design.”
One project funded by NREL is an online map that shows where green building is happening in Greensburg. Wallach adds, “That is kind of a vision of where we want to go. We want to be a virtual community, where people can come, first virtually and then in real life, to an education center where they can learn about technologies, ideas, and concepts of sustainability and green living.”
“Greensburg is like a living science museum,” explains Wallach, who serves as the executive director of Greensburg GreenTown. “It is a place where people come and immerse themselves and experience a sustainable community. We have several green buildings: the school, the hospital, a John Deere dealership, and other commercial and municipal buildings. We’re making them like exhibits in a museum that the folks can tour.”
“Although a number of houses are being built sustainably, we didn’t feel like residents would appreciate having frequent tours in their homes,” Wallach says. That sparked an idea.
“We decided to build a chain of eco-homes. The first one is a bed and breakfast, and the plan is to have all of them be lodging options, so people who come to Greensburg can stay in an eco-home.
Our intent is to have a dozen different homes, ultimately, so that people can immerse themselves in a variety of different types of construction and features. They will be showcases of sustainable green living, with each one very different from the next,” he says.
“People are really hungry for a positive sustainable future. If you are thinking about building green, it’s a very cost-effective trip to come to Greensburg and see what you like and don’t like, what works or doesn’t work.
“It would have been so wonderful for us, after the tornado in Greensburg, to be able to travel somewhere and see a community that has come back from disaster in a sustainable way. After any disaster, you’re overwhelmed and preoccupied. It’s just human nature to want to get back to what is familiar, rather than trying something new. We want to provide showcases that people can easily see, then go back to their communities and build, knowing what they are getting.”
Chain of Eco Homes Competition
To raise awareness — and with it, hopefully, funds — for the chain of eco-homes, Greensburg GreenTown issued a challenge to people around the world: Design a sustainable, eco-friendly home using one of three energy-efficient wall systems designated by the committee.
With more than 150 entries posted on the Internet, the public was invited to vote to narrow the field to 10 finalists. The winners have been determined by a national panel of judges. They will be posted on the Chain of Eco-Homes Competition website at 2:00 a.m. Eastern time, October 16.
The Grand Prize winner will receive $10,000. Two Runners-Up will each receive $1,000 in prize money.
While there’s no guarantee that any of the winning home designs will be built in Greensburg, it’s highly likely. Greensburg GreenTown is seeking sponsors to help underwrite the costs of the buildings.
What will Greensburg look like when construction is finished? If progress so far is an indication, it will be a beautiful and sustainable community with a personality all its own.
“What is happening in Greensburg is exciting,” Wallach says. “And we’ll really consider it a success if we are a beacon of hope and inspiration for others to build sustainably and live green.”
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