GREENSBURG, Kan. -- This is the story of a High Plains town, the tornado that broke it and the forces of nature that could build it back.
The EF5 twister -- nearly 2 miles wide -- came from the south two years ago tonight. Winds clocked at more than 200 miles an hour lifted and shredded more than 95 percent of Greensburg's buildings.
A third of the town's 1,400 residents salvaged what they could and left, but those who stayed vowed to build back a 21st-century showcase of sustainability.
"We've been blessed with a golden opportunity here," said Bob Dixson, a 16-year resident of Greensburg and its third mayor since the storm. "We're also very fortunate that the town's name is what it is."
Keeping with the city's new slogan, "Better, Stronger, Greener," all public projects must be built to the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Platinum standard for energy, water and materials efficiency. Back-to-the-future design plans put homes above downtown shops, greenery along sidewalks and rooftops, and windmills on the prairie.
Local business owners concede it is not always easy being green. Being socially sustainable may prove even harder -- especially in a long-shrinking farm town and far-reaching recession.
"Eco-tourism will be our primary economic engine for a while, as we try to attract industry," explained Daniel Wallach, director of the local nonprofit, Greensburg GreenTown. "We want this to be a place where people can come and experience environmentally sustainable living."
Come to a town seven hours by car from Denver, six from Kansas City and four from Oklahoma City? A town whose biggest export since the 1960s has been its young people?
Actually, being in the "middle of nowhere" is the center of it all, locals believe.
Town in transition
Before the tornado, Greensburg boasted of a John Deere dealership, a Main Street theatre and a modest tourist draw -- the world's deepest hand-dug well.
At 121 years old and 109 feet deep, the "Big Well" was and still is impressive. But if you build the Emerald City around it, will enough people come?
Entrepreneurs here are hoping so.
Scott and Susan Reinecke gave up auto repair and antiques businesses after the big storm. Now they make and sell homespun art -- including necklaces with recycled "tornado glass" and pins with tiny twisters -- at Greensburg's new business incubator.
The building sits at the corner of Main Street and U.S. Route 54, downtown's once-and-future core. Susan Reinecke appreciated the symbolism on a recent spring afternoon.
"I have a T-shirt that says, 'Greensburg is not in the middle of nowhere; it's in the middle of everywhere,'" she said.
But distance matters for Greensburg native Jeff Koehn, who opened up a home lumber and supply outlet on the edge of town in 2007.
"People want 'green' products we can't always get," Koehn conceded, adding that his nearest distributor of Forest Stewardship Council-certified lumber is 550 miles away in St. Louis.
Downtown Greensburg is dominated today by a few battered brick buildings and barren trees that reach upward like arthritic hands. But a street plan designed by BNIM Architects, of Kansas City, Mo., is starting to take shape.
More than 300 street lamps feature efficient light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. A new city hall and bank are going up on Main Street. A stone's throw away, Greensburg GreenTown's silo-influenced "eco-home" is designed to sustain plenty of wind and tourist traffic.
Even business at the Big Well is getting back to normal, locals say.
To be sure, developers in sunnier destinations such as Florida are planning eco-cities of their own with market-savvy names such as "Destiny" and "Babcock Ranch" (Greenwire, April 30).
Greensburg must compete with such communities for not only tourists but employers, contends Bob Healy, a professor emeritus of environmental policy at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.
"If you build one or two of these cities, eco-tourism will work," said Healy, an expert on the subject. "But if this concept is replicated widely, I'm not so sure."
But this southwest Kansas farm town has competitive advantages of its own, namely a low cost of living and a central location for companies that distribute goods nationally, noted Dan Esty, director of Yale University's Center for Business and the Environment.
"Probably Greensburg's most sustainable long-term strategy is to become a manufacturing center for some of the technologies the country will need," Esty said. "The town could become a center for something as simple as manufacturing high-efficiency windows or wind turbine parts."
Indeed, that is the plan.
The new economy
On a recent Saturday morning, it seemed all of Greensburg had crowded into Mike and Kelly Estes' rebuilt John Deere dealership on the edge of town.
Heads bowed as a local preacher talked about hope and stewardship in the face of adversity. The dignitaries who followed at the lectern echoed his words.
"Maybe we can be an example of hope to all of those people across the country who are struggling through these tough economic times," said Kansas State Treasurer Dennis McKinney, a Greensburg native.
Like the public buildings taking shape downtown, the Estes brothers' BTI Greensburg dealership is designed to earn USGBC's highest environmental rating. Insulated windows and skylights allow sunlight to reach deep into the building's core, and waste oil from farm equipment heats and cools the structure.
"The tornado was a complete loss for us," recalled Mike Estes, a fourth-generation owner of the company. "Our customer base of farmers remained, so we knew we were coming back."
The Estes are also trying on a different hat -- selling wind turbines.
The brothers' new company, BTI Wind Energy, will set up shop next to the John Deere dealership and market 5-kilowatt wind turbines made by Endurance Wind Power Inc. of Canada. BTI Wind Energy will employ about a dozen people locally, Mike Estes said.
Deere & Co., the maker of John Deere equipment, is also getting into the local wind-power business. The company plans to break ground in August on a 12.5-megawatt wind farm about 3 miles southwest of Greensburg, noted Martin Wilkinson, a senior vice president with Deere's renewable energy unit.
Greensburg plans to buy renewable energy credits from the project's owner, Kansas Power Pool, in an effort to zero out municipal greenhouse gas emissions, Mayor Dixson said.
The town's pledge to build back greener has attracted attention from around the world.
Greensburg is the subject of a documentary series by the same name airing on the Discovery Channel. In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama called the town a "global example of how clean energy can power an entire community -- how it can bring jobs and businesses to a place where piles of bricks and rubble once lay."
But like anywhere else, Greensburg is not immune to global economic forces.
The recession forced a California-based housing developer to scrap its plans for Greensburg, locals say. Torsten Energy LLC, based in the nearby town of Wright, has yet to break ground on a biodiesel plant in Greensburg's proposed industrial park. The project would employ about two dozen people, amid what are flat fields today.
Greensburg officials issued permits for about 375 new homes, commercial buildings and accessory structures between May 2007 and the end of April 2009, according to municipal data.
Local businessman Koehn suspects the "slow" pace of reconstruction has more to do with bureaucracy than the recession.
"We're rural America," he said. "You don't ever feel the crunch here like you do in big cities."
But you still feel it, Mayor Dixson conceded. Outside companies proposing to set up shop in Greensburg have "backed off a little" amid the recession.
"Frankly, we're at a plateau right now," Dixson added. "For us to continue the strong growth we've had in the past two years, we need new employers to move in."
He is betting that the town's new "brand" has more staying power than an economy that causes some Kansans to recall the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.
"We would like to be a living laboratory for eco-friendly living and green products," Dixson said. "It would enable people to showcase their products in a community that is known the world over for environmental sustainability."