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.

© 2011 Stefan FalkeThe warning sirens wailed as the lightning flashed, and the people of Greensburg scurried for shelter. Elma Helwig, 85 years old, grabbed her purse and her chocolate poodle, Pooler, and headed to her neighbor’s home across the street. Bob Dixson and his family holed up in the basement of the Victorian house he had restored with his own hands. Scott and Jill Eller rushed their daughter, Jessica, into the back bedroom of their one-story ranch, squeezed into a closet with the family’s beagle, Bunny, and shut the flimsy sliding doors. Then they all waited.

Tornadoes are a common threat in the Midwest, but the storm heading toward Greensburg, Kansas, on the night of May 4, 2007, was uncommonly vicious. The average tornado carves a path of destruction about 150 feet wide. This twister stretched 1.7 miles across, a little wider than Greensburg itself. At about 9:30 that night, it was moving through the corn and wheat fields south of the city. A few minutes later, the lights went out, and Dixson, Greensburg’s mayor, knew the twister had crossed the highway south of town and clipped the power lines. At the Ellers’ house, windows began exploding from the extreme drop in air pressure. The tornado drove into the city, then stopped. The 205 mph winds threw pickup trucks into the air, ripped the top floor off the three-story brick school, and flung cows through the surrounding fields. At Mike Estes’s John Deere dealership, 22-ton combines tumbled end over end. Residents cowered, listening to the terrible sounds of their houses disintegrating around them. The tornado sat on Greensburg for eight minutes, grinding up homes, cars, and trees like an enormous food processor.

And then, the city was still, save for the rumble of distant thunder. Dixson figured he might have lost his roof, but then he emerged from the basement onto a flat deck of wood. His home had been wiped away, and in brief seconds during flashes of lightning, he took in what was left of the city: nothing, just piles of debris as far as he could see.

Elma Helwig’s friend, Bill Crites, climbed his basement steps and peered through a window. “Elma,” he said, “you don’t have a house.”

At the Ellers’ home, the back corner where they’d sheltered in the closet was all that remained. Jill’s maroon pickup truck lay upside down in the living room. Eleven of their neighbors lay dead or dying.

As the next day dawned, a resident who had served in the Pacific during World War II said the destruction reminded him of Hiroshima. Except for two old brick buildings downtown, everything was gone: homes, street signs, the water tower, and the hundreds of beautiful old trees that had shaded streets and yards. Lifelong Greensburg residents found themselves lost without familiar landmarks to guide them. Residents picked through the wreckage and salvaged a few treasures: a china vase, family pictures, a stuffed animal. In her front yard, Elma Helwig found the tan ceramic bowl she used to make her prized cinnamon rolls. She had never used a recipe and knew the ratios only from how the ingredients looked in that particular bowl, which she’d owned since 1962. Her baking pans were stacked in the yard, right next to the bowl. Everything else was ruined.

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.

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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Originally Published in Reader's Digest