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

Many in Greensburg, the farmers especially, realized something else: They had been living green for generations; they’d just called it common sense. “Waste not, want not,” says Dennis McKinney, a former Kansas state treasurer who’s been farming wheat south of Greensburg for 35 years. “Lots of families here either lived through the Depression or were raised by Depression-era parents. My parents survived the Dust Bowl.”

“Farmers are the best conservationists,” says Estes. “If they destroy the land or misuse water resources, they’re out of a job. They don’t have anything to pass on to the kids. It’s not a red-state, blue-state deal. It’s a green-state deal.”

The tornado caused $23 million in damage to Estes’s business. He rebuilt and now runs the country’s greenest John Deere dealership. The building looks like a typical retail store and maintenance garage. But it’s what’s behind the scenes — thickly insulated walls, skylights, rainwater ponds — that makes it so eco-friendly. More efficient plumbing saves 40,000 gallons of water a year, and a 50-kilowatt wind turbine provides 95 percent of the dealership’s power. So many people stopped to ask about the windmill that Estes expanded his farm-equipment dealership to include wind turbines. Pairing farm implements and wind turbines was a natural fit for his mechanics too.

“As long as they’re not afraid of heights, they can work on wind turbines,” Estes says. His family now has wind-turbine businesses in 35 states and six Canadian provinces. His utility bills have already dropped from $48,000 to about $7,000 a year.

Estes often leads tours for other dealers and business owners looking for tips on improving their bottom line. Such visitors are a frequent sight around Greensburg. They come to see the energy-efficient 15-bed hospital; the country’s greenest Best Western hotel (with one of Estes’s wind turbines out front); and the glass-walled art center, designed by University of Kansas architectural students.

Today, a sign on the edge of the city welcomes visitors: Rebuilding … Stronger, Better, Greener! Despite the losses and trauma, the upended lives and uprooted homes, many residents now see the tornado as a gift that spurred a deeper appreciation for family and neighbors and injected hope into a bleak future.

“We were a dying community before,” says Ruth Ann Wedel, site manager for Greensburg GreenTown, a nonprofit group that educates residents about building and living green (unrelated to the GreenTowns Pledge; see sidebar, below). “Now we have another opportunity.”

She slips into a pew for Sunday services at First United Methodist Church, which was rebuilt along with seven other Greensburg churches. Stacked near the altar this morning are 265 shoe boxes, each filled with candy and coloring books, marbles and markers, Christmas presents for children in other countries — paid for and packed by parishioners who had themselves received so many donations after the tornado. A neighbor, Esther Shank, stands nearby, hymnal in hand, and leads the choir in “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” a song of gratitude to God for protecting the harvest and the people from life’s storms. “If ever there was a community that should be able to sing this song,” Shank tells the congregation, “we’re that community.”

By Sunday afternoon, Elma Helwig is baking cinnamon rolls in a house that was rebuilt exactly like her old one, except that it’s environmentally up-to-date. Her home is filled with donated furniture that replaced everything she lost.

“It’s just a miracle,” says Helwig. At 89, she still works as custodian of her church and cleans apartments, along with baking. The most recent batch of cinnamon rolls went to a group of AmeriCorps volunteers who have come to Greensburg to clear debris from vacant lots. “The Lord has blessed me,” she says.

And across town, just down the street from the Ellers’ funky geodesic house, Mayor Dixson eases into a chair on his covered porch, taking a short break from yard work. Spread out before him are the new school, the new grocery store, the new city hall, all the new homes, and, around his yard, a dozen new trees, skinny saplings to replace the oaks and maples he lost in the tornado. Two young girls ride their bikes down the street, no parents in sight. No problem — that’s life around here. Dixson waves to every car that passes his house, and the drivers all wave back. Though he doesn’t say it out loud, it’s obvious from the look on his face that he knows the most important parts of Greensburg never went away.

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