Greensburg goes 'green'

Thursday, May 1st 2008, 1:30 pm
By: News 9

By Stacey Cameron, NEWS 9

GREENSBURG, Kan. -- Across the Plains states - including Oklahoma - thousands of farm communities are drying up and dying in the wind.

Last year, in Kansas, a deadly tornado threatened to speed that process up for one small town. But the winds of change in Greensburg may be changing rural America for the better - in a 'green' way.

Watching the Kansas wind blow through a wheat field on the edge of town, it's easy to imagine where Greensburg got its name.

"Being called Greensburg, it just happens, happens to fit I guess," resident Scott Brown said.

But green was little more than a name for Greensburg - until a year ago - when a tornado nearly destroyed the city.

"It was like, that thing lined up with Main Street and used it for a bull's eye," Brown said.

Main Street as its bull's eye, the tornado carved a path as wide as the entire town, leaving people like Brown to describe the destruction.

"The pictures you see when we dropped the atom bomb, kind of reminds me of that," Brown said.

At its core, Greensburg is a farming town, so it almost seemed a symbol of sorts that one of the few buildings left standing after the tornado was the grain elevators. But Greensburg residents that wanted to rebuild the town and go forward, they knew they couldn't simply rebuild Main Street with red brick buildings.

They had to do something different, so the people decided to go ‘green,' rebuilding the town environmentally friendly and wanting to make Greensburg, KS. GreenTown, USA the most environmentally friendly city in the world.

"Green, I thought maybe that meant you painted it green, I didn't know," Brown said.

Brown is a local businessman who knew little about environmentalism - or - how it could save his city.
That is, until a funny little man wearing a bow tie and driving a hydrogen powered car came to town.

"Daniel was definitely the catalyst for the Green Initiative in Greensburg," Brown said.

Daniel is Danny Wallach - a self proclaimed environmentalist.

"Everybody essentially lost everything," Executive Director of Greensburg, GreenTown Daniel Wallach said.

While he's a fellow Kansan, Wallach doesn't live in Greensburg. And he's the kind of guy some people in Greensburg would call a tree hugger.

"This is the reddest of the red states, and one of the most conservative communities in the state," Wallach said.

But driving around the city after the storm, Wallach saw hope. For him, Greensburg was an opportunity to reframe the environmental movement in rural America.

If the town came back ‘green,' Greensburg might become a model of how to rebuild dying farm towns across America.

"You just don't have those types of opportunities often, to re-imagine a whole town," Wallach said.

One of the first people whose imagination Wallach captured was Steve Hewitt - Greensburg's City Manager.

"Why not do what's best for your community, so it has a chance to thrive, not just survive like other small towns in America is trying to do?" Hewitt said. "But, actually move itself away from the pack and lead in a new direction."

For Hewitt, moving Greensburg in a ‘green' direction meant rebuilding downtown. Currently he's overseeing plans to reconstruct four public buildings destroyed by the tornado - using mostly recyclable materials.

"We're not just talking about ‘green,' we're actually doing it," Hewitt said.

Doing it ‘green' means reconstructing Greensburg's City Hall, museum and business development center will use nothing but solar, wind and geothermal energy. According to Hewitt, these ‘green' innovations are bringing new businesses and jobs to a town loosing population just a year ago.

"So, now we have an opportunity to be a productive little town," Hewitt said. "Not just one you fly through going 70 mph, but one you actually want to stop and visit and see what's going on there."

Currently, the construction is being done of over 150 environmentally friendly homes - with owners like Greg Ellis.

"My dad always said, ‘If you take care of the land, it will take care of you'," Ellis said.

Ellis's home is more expensive to build. But with geothermal appliances and green building materials - his house is taking care of him by saving him a little green when it comes to utility bills.

Still sitting behind a desk that looks like it was struck by a tornado; Scott Brown imagines what people might say about Greensburg in five years.

"You know that tornado was the best thing that ever happened to Greensburg, look at how they bounced back," Brown said.

Greensburg is bouncing back because of the funny little man who had a big 'green' dream for Greensburg.

"To realize that dream and that vision, that's exciting," Wallach said.

According to Hewitt companies like Google, John Deere and Chevy are all talking about bringing new business to Greensburg.