Gutted by a Tornado, Kansas Town Embraces Sustainability

Greensburg now runs entirely on clean energy. A Q&A with its Republican mayor.

By Geoff Dembicki 18 Apr 2015 |

Geoff Dembicki reports on energy and climate change for The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

Funding for this article was partially provided by the Climate Justice Project of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, with support from the Fossil Fuel Development Mitigation Fund of Tides Canada Foundation.

On May 4, 2007, Greensburg was flattened by a tornado. The rural Kansas town was 95 per cent destroyed. Thirteen people died and 60 were injured. In the following days and weeks, hundreds of people met in a tent on the edge of town to debate what to do next. They decided to rebuild Greensburg in a way that would pay tribute to their pioneering ancestors. It now has more LEED-certified buildings per capita than any other U.S. town, and gets 100 per cent of its energy from wind turbines.

Far from the windy high plains of southwest Kansas, civic leaders in Vancouver are trying to follow in Greensburg's footsteps. Council last month passed a resolution to make the city 100 per cent reliant on renewable energy by 2035. In building public support for the plan, Mayor Gregor Robertson may be able to learn a thing or two from the current mayor of Greensburg, a Republican named Bob Dixson, who will be speaking in Vancouver on May 14 as part of a three-day Global Learning Forum.

The event, organized by Simon Fraser University's Centre for Dialogue, brings together policymakers, businesspeople and other leaders of our planet's low-carbon transition. As one of its only conservative speakers, Dixson will add unique perspective to a debate often defined by progressives. The mayor admits that he was once skeptical of the word "green." But in an exclusive Tyee Q&A, he explains how Greensburg became one of the world's leaders of small-town sustainability.

On what it's like to survive a 2.7 kilometre-wide tornado:

"That evening on May 4, 2007, the tornado sirens went off. Of course, we went to the basement of our house. At 9:40 p.m. the tornado hit. It was 1.7 miles [2.74 kilometres] wide, which was almost the width of Greensburg. Ninety-five percent of the buildings were levelled to rubble. That includes homes, downtown, businesses, church, hospital, school -- just all gone.... We lost everything. There was no walls, there was no roof, there was nothing left of the house. But we were unscathed, no scratches, scrapes or bruises.

"We got out of the basement and started looking around. Of course, it's pitch dark, but there was some lightning. All we could see was debris everywhere.... It looked like a bomb went off in town. Trees uprooted, you couldn't tell exactly where the streets were because there was so much debris spread everywhere. As the sun came up that next morning, people from all over Kansas were here to help.... Even though the courthouse still stood, its windows were blown out and there was a big gash in the roof because a car went over the top and tore part of the roof off."

On how the disaster caused local democracy to flourish:

"A tent [on the edge of Greensburg] was put up immediately because there was no place in town to meet, so that's where we had our community meetings... all under the big tent. We had 400 to 500 people show up at those community meetings.

"Cell phone towers were down. So our county communications officer, through input from the community, decided to create a yellow sheet. It was a single piece of paper... that showed all the resources that were available, where to go to find help -- just a true information sheet. That was a big benefit to the community right away. We still continue with the yellow sheet, except it's digital now. It's just a way to keep the community informed, involved and engaged in all the [town's] processes."

On why a rural Kansas town embraced sustainability:

"Long story short, a discussion was started [soon after the tornado] with the mayor at the time and the governor's office and federal officials. They said that, yes, we are going to rebuild, and our name is Greensburg, so let's make sure that we think about building back in a very sustainable and energy efficient green manner. That's where that seed was planted. Then in our tent meetings we kept talking about it.

582px version of GreensburgCityHall_610px.jpg
The LEED Platinum Greensburg city hall today. Photo provided by Bob Dixson.

"I was slightly skeptical because I heard the word 'green.' Too many times over the past numerous decades, we've associated 'green' with an ideology or a political party or things that are far out from our thinking in rural America.... As we educated ourselves more, we realized that our pioneering ancestors were environmentalists. They were the true green people. They lived on the resources they had available. They utilized the natural elements of the wind and the sun to be able to survive on the prairies of western Kansas. So those conservation values had been instilled in us for generations, but we didn't associate that with being quote unquote green.... [We knew] to survive as a community we have to be good stewards of our resources."

On what a visitor to Greensburg would see today:

"Everything is brand new. Eight to 10 months after the tornado, there was massive construction started. We're just continuing with new projects. For several years, all the basic functions have come back. Everyone has a job or source of income in their new homes. New school, new hospital, new downtown -- businesses are back.

"Our challenge now is to continue to be sustainable as a full community. It's not just in our electrical consumption or our buildings, but also in our water consumption, because water is a big issue on the high plains. And the question is, how do we be good stewards of all that? So when I talk about sustainability, it's just everything."

On the universal lessons contained in the town's story:

"This process worked so well here because it transcended politics, and it could be done at the local level. When you look nationally or worldwide, if people would start [embracing sustainability] in their own lives and in their community's life... then we're going to be able to make a real difference on some national and global issues.

"It's about the process of setting goals, having that [sustainable] vision and then being able to tie the community together by explaining why the vision is there. You have to make the business case for it... not only from the heart.

"The [Greensburg] plan was developed by us. It was our plan.... [We want] future generations to be able to look back and say in 50 years that, hey, those people went through a bad time, but they were visionaries of thinking for the future."  [Tyee]

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