Rebuilding After the Tornado

When an uncommonly vicious tornado stamped its way through Greensburg, Kansas, efficient and green living became a way of life for the rebuilders.

By Brian Mockenhaupt from Reader's Digest | May 2011

In the first days after the tornado, Mike Estes heard grumblings from fellow business owners that they were leaving. He and his family had been selling John Deere farm equipment in the area since 1944, and he knew that without businesses, there would be no jobs and no city. He, his brother Kelly, and Scott Brown called a meeting at Brown’s auction house, and 150 people crowded inside. “People wanted to know if we were going to be a town or if we were done for,” Brown says. “It could have gone either way.”

Estes and Brown set up three white boards and began making lists: Going … Staying … Undecided. Of the 70 business owners who attended the meeting, 66 said they intended to stay. Reassured by the owners’ resolve, the men moved on to the next question: How would they resurrect their city? “What we had in this town was fairly old,” Estes says. “If everything’s gone, why don’t we rebuild better than what we had?”

The same conversation was happening elsewhere around the city in those early days. Greensburg could be new and better, with efficient buildings powered by clean energy, a model community that might attract national interest and investment. One week after the storm, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius put a label on the growing momentum: “We have an opportunity [to make] the greenest town in rural America,” she said.

Like most small towns in middle America, Greensburg — founded as a city in 1886 and named for stagecoach owner Donald “Cannonball” Green — had been losing population for years. As farming became more industrial and needed fewer hands, Greensburg withered on the vine. Young people chased jobs in bigger cities, or they left for college and never came back. By 2007, the population had drifted down to 1,400; another 500 had no plans to return after the tornado. What if they were given a reason to stay? “Putting the green in Greensburg” became the slogan for the rebuilders.

Most of the tornado survivors moved to neighboring towns until the Federal Emergency Management Agency brought in 300 trailers, which residents dubbed FEMAville. Much of the city was without power, water, and sewers for months. Elma Helwig moved into a trailer and started baking cinnamon rolls again. She knew she’d stay in Greensburg. Her husband was buried there. And there would be plenty of people to feed as volunteers from across the country descended on Greensburg to help clear away the wreckage and rebuild. But, despite all the sloganeering, a sizable contingent doubted the city’s ability to spring back.

Jill and Scott Eller fell into the skeptical camp. Jill, who owns an oil-field supply company, says the couple had little knowledge of or interest in sustainability; they just wanted their lives back. They figured they’d rebuild green only if it cut their energy bills.

“We didn’t start out trying to save trees,” says Scott, who runs an excavation business. “We were trying to save money.” They ended up with one of Greensburg’s most radical homes, which looks like a two-story house stuck between two halves of a geodesic dome. The walls are made from Styrofoam — six to eight inches thick — sandwiched between plywood, which provides about six times the insulation of a standard wall. The home, which is just across the street from Mayor Dixson’s, can withstand winds of up to 205 mph, the same speed as the tornado that ripped apart the city. Jill made some smaller changes, too, such as putting in a low-flush toilet that saves hundreds of gallons of water a year, and she’s now an advocate.

“When you look at the savings, it’s mind-boggling,” she says. Before, the Ellers used mostly paper plates and napkins at home. Now a basket of cloth napkins sits on the dining-room table. She started recycling paper and boxes at work and was shocked at how much she’d been throwing away.

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