A recent rash of tornadoes erupting across a huge swath of the Southern Plains signaled a sudden strengthening of what had been an exceptionally mild tornado season. It also marked the time to pay tribute to the poster town for devastation and rebuilding in the face of massive odds, Greensburg, Kan., which faithfully hosts a community-wide celebration each year as tornado season swings into high gear.
A recent rash of tornadoes erupting across a huge swath of the Southern Plains signaled a sudden strengthening of what had been an exceptionally mild tornado season.
It also marked the time to pay tribute to the poster town for devastation and rebuilding in the face of massive odds, Greensburg, Kan., which faithfully hosts a community-wide celebration each year as tornado season swings into high gear.
Forced to rebuild three years ago after being hit head-on by a mammoth twister, the town is now full of firsts and one-of-a-kinds, a real-world showcase for the most modern green technology on the planet.
In the last three years, more than 150 new homes and 20 new businesses have been constructed, along with new streets and utilities. While the eerie lack of trees and remaining barren streets testify to the tragedy, signs of new life are everywhere, and Greensburg finally has a recognizable Main Street again.
Much of the town has been rebuilt with the goal of making the new Greensburg a tourist destination. Green travel is one of the hottest frontiers in the travel industry. More than 50 companies working on some 30 building projects have been part of Greensburg’s green revival.
Among the achievements: Greensburg is the first U.S. city to pass a resolution to certify that all city-owned buildings earn LEED Platinum accreditation, the highest level granted by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, an internationally recognized green building certification program. As a result, Greensburg is home to the state’s first LEED Platinum building and a growing concentration of similarly certified structures. It is the first town to have 100 percent Light Emitting Diode, or LED, street lighting, which reduces energy and maintenance costs by more than 70 percent and reduces nighttime light pollution by directing light rays downward.
During the recent special anniversary weekend, the town held dedications, tours, ribbon-cuttings and a George Jones benefit concert to raise funds for a movie theatre.
A focal point for the festivities was the unusual silo eco-home, where Ruth Ann Wedel, site manager for the nonprofit Greensburg GreenTown, welcomed visitors throughout the afternoon. She said later that more than 500 people toured the home. It was also the site of a Greensburg GreenTown official ribbon cutting to thank volunteers and celebrate the community’s progress.
The unique circular design is based on the town’s grain elevator, one of only a couple of buildings left standing after the devastating tornado. Built to mimic a silo, it has 6-inch concrete walls and a rooftop garden with a rainwater collection system. It is currently being used as a bed-and-breakfast, a nonprofit office and a visitors’ center. It is planned as the first in a series of eco-homes that will showcase unique building techniques and materials.
Brian Wendland, a certified home energy rater from neighboring St. John, Kan., and one of several green based businesses operating booths during the anniversary celebration, said the home was 40 percent more efficient than a regular home built to code. He said the new structures across town ranged from 40 percent to 60 percent more efficient than the typical home.
Wedel said a second eco-silo home was being built in town as a family residence.
About a block away, on the other side of the town’s famous “Big Well” attraction, visitors had a chance to tour the community arts center, notable for its small wind turbines, pole-mounted solar panels, and tinted glass photovoltaic panel walls. It is the state’s first certified LEED Platinum level building (the impressive new Kiowa County Memorial Hospital on the west end of town is also LEED Platinum certified, as well as the downtown business incubator, a new set of townhouses and the nearby BTI John Deere dealership.) It was built by third-year graduate students in the architecture program at the University of Kansas and trucked in pieces to Greensburg for installation. (Students from Kansas State University’s College of Architecture and Design have also left their mark on the town, building several modular “cube” buildings to provide practical functions as well as serve as “education stations” about green technology and products.)
Made from reclaimed wood, the arts center lets in lots of natural light using protective high performance glass designed to withstand hail. It has a green roof, literally: while the white roof reflects heat instead of absorbing it, green roof blocks of sedum, a drought-tolerant plant, shade it. The plumbing incorporates low-flow controls, minimizing water use. The building harvests rainwater through gutters and downspouts into a cistern, which is used to water the outside yard through a pump system. Reuse of captured rainwater is a common design feature in buildings around town.
A cluster of construction trailers surrounds the new school, which is set to open in August. It is also being built to LEED platinum standards. Use of natural lighting will be a prominent feature. According to one tour volunteer, it will be energy efficient enough to go for two weeks at a time without using any electricity.
Also during the anniversary weekend, a dedication was held for the 10-turbine Greensburg Wind Farm, which will provide for all of the town’s energy needs and more. Developed by John Deere Renewables, the farm is expected to generate enough energy to power 4,000 buildings. It is located on farmland just southwest of town, and several farm families receive direct economic benefit from it.
While Greensburg has much that is worthy of showing off, the rebuilding process has been laborious and time-consuming. Some people have complained about the expense and delays that come with cutting edge green construction, but officials say the remoteness of the town’s location (two hours west of Wichita) has been its biggest challenge.
Every year tornadoes impact towns and farms across the Great Plains, setting in motion the overwhelming task of rebuilding.
Fortunately, 2010 started with a long cool spring, and early season tornadoes were down significantly this year, with funnel reports about a quarter of normal. But tornado activity picked up in recent weeks, and as this week attests, a slow start doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of the season will be mild, according to weather experts.
Tornado season in the Southern Plains typically lasts through June.
Greensburg, while still in the rebuilding stage, continues to draw visitors from around the world. But it has yet to regain its former size. The town’s population is estimated at 900, which compares to about 1,300 who lived there before the storm.