Greensburg Journal: Somewhere Over the Rainbow, But Still in Kansas

Remains of May, 2007, tornado in foreground, new Community Arts Center in background using all sustainable materials and energy sources. (photo Ron Bernthal)


Summer time is tornado season in much of the Midwest, and although most tornado’s in the plains strike empty fields, others hit parts of towns, destroying some homes and commercial structures. However, at 10:00 PM, on May 4th, 2007, an EF5 ranked tornado with winds of over 250 miles per hour swept across the entire town of Greensburg, Kansas, destroying almost every building in town, and killing 12 residents.

“I was home with my wife that evening, and we knew from the weather reports that tornado’s were in the area,” said Bob Dixon, Greensburg’s current mayor and former postmaster, who remembers that night well. “When the wind started to blow hard, and we could hear things blowing around outside, we went into the basement, covered ourselves with area rugs and waited out the storm. After twenty minutes of terrible noise I began to feel water dripping down on us, and when we lifted the rugs off, we could see the black sky and we knew the roof was gone, actually the entire house, all of it gone down to the foundation, same with all our neighbors’ houses. Within a few minutes the tornado took the entire town down, almost every house and every commercial building was gone.”

Photos below show tornado devastation of Greensburg, Kansas, in May, 2007. Ninety-five percent of town’s houses and commercial buildings were destroyed.

Although their 100 year-old town disappeared overnight (the 200+ mph winds took down 95% of its structures), it was only a few days before Mr. Dixon and the other residents, after helping each other rescue survivors, held a community meeting in a hastily constructed tent, and decided that they would rebuild Greensburg, not with traditional building design and traditional materials, but they would build a sustainable town, with wind turbines and solar panels, and by using the most modern, eco-friendly, green building materials they could find. The result, now almost seven years later, and still an ongoing project, is astonishing.

Greensburg Mayor Bob Dixon (photo Ron Bernthal)

“We asked ourselves a few questions before developing a sustainable master plan and a long-term recovery plan that focused on being green and sustainable. Did we have the ability to endure? Did we have the ability to continue in existence? That’s what sustainability meant to me,” said Mayor Dixon as he surveyed the view of the new Greensburg from his office in the town’s beautiful, eco-friendly municipal building. “If we were going to build back, we were going to build back with a vision for the future.”

The Kiowa County K-12 school in Greensburg opened in 2010 as LEED Platinum certified. Picture shows elementary school side of cafeteria. (photo Ron Bernthal)

Using “green” architects from around the state of Kansas the town of Greensburg began to rebuild, turning a small agricultural town into a living laboratory of the most up-to-date green technology. Using the newest and most advanced systems for geo-thermal, wind and solar energy, and architecture and building materials that would mitigate Greensburg’s cold winters and steamy summers, this town of 850 residents (down from 1,600 before the tornado due to residents having to relocate) is now quite different from any other town in Kansas. Dorothy’s statement in the Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. We must be over the rainbow,” could definitely apply to today’s Greensburg, Kansas.

Kiowa County Commons building, with solar panels on roof (photo Ron Bernthal)

The juxtaposition of Greensburg’s modern, futuristic-looking town against the wide expanse of the Kansas prairie is startling. A visitor without knowledge of the town’s recent reinvention of itself would wonder how all these modern, colorful, high-tech structures came to be situated in the middle of Kansas, surrounded by wheat and soybean farms and cattle ranches that surround the town in large swaths of brown, green and yellow earth that extend for miles to the distant horizon.

The Greensburg Wind Farm supplies the entire town with its energy needs, with plenty left over to sell to the Kansas grid. (photo NativeEnergy, Inc.)

Hundreds of new homes have been built since 2007, all 40% more efficient than code, and most of the municipal buildings, like the stunning school and hospital, are LEED Platinum certified. The town initiated a design competition which brought in a diverse group of architects, and began offering “green” tours to design students and the public. The Greensburg Wind Farm began generating power a few years after the tornado with ten turbines, and now supplies enough power for 4,000 households, more than enough for the entire town. The carbon neutral town is also constructing a group of Eco Homes, which will be living examples of new green building technologies, including the innovative Eco Silo Home. The Community Arts Center, designed and constructed by the University of Kansas School of Architecture, uses a combination of active and passive energy systems, including cross ventilation, water reclamation, passive solar design, and retractable shading awnings. Greensburg is already the first U.S. city to light all streets with LED lights, and the first to have a LEED-certified town hall.

Kiowah County Memorial Hospital is the first LEED Platinum Certified Critical Access Hospital in the United States. The original hospital was destroyed in the tornado. (photo courtesy KCMH)

“For visitors who are interested in touring Greensburg and seeing some of the sustainable buildings, we offer guided tours of our new school, hospital, arts center, the Eco Silo Home, and the Big Well Museum. We are always happy to show visitors around,” said Stacy Barnes, director of Greenburg’s small Convention and Tourism Department.

Ms. Barnes has an office in a rebuilt building that also houses the Big Well, the town’s claim to fame before the deadly 2007 tornado. The Big Well is the world’s largest hand-dug well, completed in 1888 and measuring 109 feet deep, and 32 feet in diameter. It is listed as one of the eight wonders of Kansas. Until the tornado hit this was the only attraction that brought visitors to Greensburg.

Looking down into the Big Well, the largest hand-dug well in the world. (photo Greensburg Big Well Museum)

Today, tourists driving along Route 54, halfway between Wichita and the Colorado border, stop for gas and snacks along the highway in Greensburg, and then drive a half-mile to the center of town and the Big Well Museum, where they stare or climb down into the well (now located within the museum building), and then look at a wall of photos showing the town’s timeline from its origins as a 19thcentury agricultural center, settled mostly by German immigrants, to its current status as one of the most sustainable small towns in America.

When tourists at the museum come across the large, black and white aerial images of Greensburg showing the town immediately following the tornado, their eyes widen and jaws drop. “It looks just like a German city after World War II, completely flattened,” said an older gentleman from Ohio. A young mother with two kids following her through the exhibit asked, “Oh my, how did anyone survive this? The whole town is gone.”

Road sign on Highway 54 approaching Greensburg, Kansas (photo Ron Bernthal)

“If it was just about us, our generation, then rebuilding the town would have taken half the time, and it would have been rebuilt to look just like it was,” said Mayor Dixon. “But we were thinking of the future generations, our kids and grandkids, and for new people moving into town, so everything we built since the tornado, and still construct today, is for future generations, so they will have a safe and stable environment in which to raise their families, energy, and not worry about their houses disappearing in the middle of the night.”