Tom Ross: What we can learn from a post-tornado revival

What we can learn from a post-tornado revival

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— What would you do if Steamboat Springs was wiped out tomorrow by a rogue tornado?

OK, let me rephrase that. What would you do if Steamboat Springs was wiped out tomorrow by a massive avalanche? Would you bolt town for flatter ground, or would you stick around to build a new city from scratch on the big bend in the Yampa River? Could you envision a community that was planned from the beginning to be as green and sustainable as possible?

The citizens of Greensburg, in southwestern Kansas, faced that question - the tornado question, not the avalanche question - on May 5, 2007, the morning after a massive wedge-shaped twister roared down Main Street. It destroyed all but a few buildings in the little agricultural town of 1,400 people.

John Wickland, manager of the nonprofit organization Greensburg GreenTown, described the city's rebirth Friday afternoon to an audience at the Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel. He was the keynote speaker at the 2009 Sustainability Summit hosted by the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council.

"The tornado formed 15 miles to the southwest of town (which is a dot on the map about 100 miles west and southwest of Wichita along Highway 54) and grew to 1.7 miles across," Wickland said. "The town itself is about 1.5 miles across, and the tornado blew straight up Main Street with wind speeds up to 205 mph."

The best news was that most of the teenagers in town were away at the state high school forensics championships.

The grim news was that every building in town was severely damaged, if not destroyed. Wickland chose not to talk about the 11 people who died in the storm.

"The saving grace was that there were 20 or 25 minutes (before the tornado struck) with sirens blaring," Wickland said. "In a small town people will call their neighbors and check on old people."

The Kiowa County Courthouse had a hole punched in its roof by a car from the nearby impound lot and suffered severe water damage but was salvageable. The independent grocery store was spared - sort of. The grain elevators withstood the winds and a single historic red brick bank building on Main Street was left standing.

But the rest of the commercial district was gone.

"The hospital was destroyed, the schools, the library, the theater, the police station - all but one of the downtown business buildings were destroyed," Wickland said.

The town was left uninhabitable, and it's not a surprise that 700 of the 1,400 folks who lived there before the tornado packed up and moved away.

However, within a short time, 400 townspeople gathered under a red-and-white-striped tent in Greensburg. They weighed their futures and the future of their town with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Emboldened by a set of guidelines put together by FEMA, they resolved to tackle a new vision for their town.

"There were three to five key people who thought really quickly that this would be an opportunity for the community," Wickland said.

It didn't take all that long for a good part of the community, and it was a conservative community to begin with, to commit to re-building Greensburg as a green community, he said.

"I think there are two reasons why this happened," Wickland said.

"First, there was a crisis at hand that brought people together immediately. Then, there was a core of, I'd say, 100 people from government and institutions - the schools, the hospital - who made a strong outreach for the green movement."

The story of all the sustainable buildings nearing completion this fall, 2 1/2 years after the tornado, is rich with detail. It's bigger than I can tell you about today.

Greensburg committed to generating all the energy it needs and more from renewable sources.

Construction on a wind farm, built with the help of a subsidiary of John Deere, will include 10 giant turbines generating 12.5 megawatts. John Deere expects to sell power back to the grid.

The new $50 million public school campus is just one of three or four Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum-rated schools that exist the country, Wickland said.

The new $25 million Kiowa County Memorial Hospital is shooting for platinum status and will feature a wind turbine on site. The repaired courthouse is on track for LEED gold certification and will feature 32 geothermal wells to help heat and cool the building.

How did they pay for it all? With everything from state of Kansas emergency funds to FEMA dollars, USDA grants, $1 million in local donations and even $400,000 from actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Before the tornado in May 2007, Greensburg was known only as the home of "The Big Well," promoted as the world's largest hand-dug water well. It wasn't much of an attraction.

Now, the little town on the Kansas prairie is setting a national standard for sustainability. It sounds like an inspiring community to visit someday - someday in any month but May.

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