15 years after the tornado – Planning lessons from Greensburg, Kansas

Source: researchgate.net

May 4, 2007, will always remain a pivotal day in the history of Greensburg, Kansas. On that day, much of the city of Greensburg was obliterated by a EF5 category tornado. Thankfully, most residents survived the tragedy due early and persistent storm warnings, as well as the swift/brave actions of their friends, neighbors, authorities, and other caring citizens. Regardless, the post-storm statistics are both staggering and heartbreaking:

  • Ten residents of Greensburg perished
  • More than 90 percent of the city was destroyed
  • 5,700 trees; or 95 percent of the city’s tree canopy was lost
  • There was $250 million in damage to the city
  • Only 66 of the 110 businesses in Greensburg before the storm indicated they planned to stay afterwards
  • The amount of debris and rubble removed equaled nearly 1/2 million pounds per resident of the city!
Greensburg just days after the tornado – Source: en.wikipedia.org
“The Beacon” Memorial
Up close image of tornado/date

This post identifies and discusses some of the planning lessons learned from Greensburg. As can be surmised from the list below, not all aspects of the city’s resurrection have gone as smoothly or quickly as was hoped for during early stages of the rebuilding phase. One only need walk around the town to sense that something very tragic happened here — missing trees, empty lots, and remnant foundations are testaments to the ferocity of the tornado even 15 years later. For this retired planner, Greensburg in 2022 evokes much of the same post-tramatic aura that Xenia, Ohio did when visiting there in the early 1980s.

Here are the planning lessons, but frankly there could be many, many more given the complexity of the situation here.

  1. Unlike many places that would throw in the towel after such a calamitous event, Greensburg took a brave “greener” approach. The city decided to rebuild as a “model green town” of energy conservation and sustainability utilizing LEED standards.

2. Some residents of Greensburg also took the unique step of establishing a non-profit (Greensburg GreenTown) to help facilitate the rebuilding process and promote sustainable solutions. Sadly, this organization is no longer exists.

3. Equating the city’s post-storm sustainability programs to challenges that faced local pioneers — such as orienting homes to take advantage of sunlight and pumping water by windmill — helped convince the skeptics to move forward.

4. Greensburg’s motto as a “Pioneering Community” is very apt and well-deserved in light of their model sustainability efforts.

Source: greensburgks.org
Greensburg City Hall with streetscaping in foreground

5. Laudable environmental conservation and sustainability steps taken since the 2007 tornado, include, but are not limited to:

Silo eco-home
Meadowlark eco-home

6. Greensburg has been able to serve as a “living laboratory” for renewable energy and sustainability. As a result, it has observed first hand what works well, what doesn’t work, and what improvements/changes/corrections need to be made.

7. Despite the admirable efforts to rebuild their city, Greensburg’s population continues to dwindle since that fateful day in 2007 — standing at 740 in 2020 compared to 777 in 2010 and 1,574 in 2000. A number of factors may have contributed to this continued decline including:

FYI – A quick review of Census data on Wikipedia shows that despite its 4.8 percent decline between 2010 and 2020, Greensburg’s population did not fall as much when compared to many small cities and towns across Kansas.

8. Greensburg continues to champion sustainability, through its website, by offering guided green tours of the city, and through the book Green Town USA in 2013.

9. Despite the setbacks, Greensburg is and should always be synonymous with resiliency, as the city demonstrated great courage and resolve to “restore, rebuild, and reimagine” after the 2007 tornado.

10. Rebuilding an entire community involves huge initial leaps in rebuilding and reconstruction, followed by many years of baby steps, as the community gradually restitches itself back together. The second part of the timeline is harder because the initial enthusiasm has worn off.

11. An important lesson that Greensburg learned from the disaster and which is wise advice to other communities, was the following:

“Adversity can be a ‘natural resource’ that we can use to build a better future.”

Daniel Wallach – Co-Founder, Greensburg GreenTown as cited in “Green Town USA”
5.4.7. Arts Center in Greensburg in 2009 with wind turbines and solar – Source: nytimes.com
5.4.7. Arts Center in Sept. 2022 – wind turbines and solar panels are gone

It is hoped that despite some setbacks, Greensburg will stay the course and continue to champion sustainable solutions as it has the past 15 years. Many challenges await while attempting to chart a bold new course, not the least of which is the pressure to rescind certain regulations and turn back the clock. What is often forgotten by those who advocate for taking steps backward, is that doing so also has inherent risks, including the potential loss of the Greensburg’s own identity to market forces beyond the its control. These can gradually strip away the very attributes and qualities that even a EF5 tornado could not shake — the ones that set Greensburg apart from most others places of similar size across the country — local business and property ownership, ease of access to community services, and especially a bold vision for its future.

However, this retired planner is rooting for the good people of Greensburg to bravely reject the notion of turning back and to instead maintain their collective desire for restoring, rebuilding, and reimagining this extraordinary community that graces the American landscape.

Handsome Twilight Theatre in downtown Greensburg

_______

If the rebuilding of Greensburg, Kansas interests you, here are two books on the topic available through Amazon.com.*

*A small commission is earned from purchases that are made using the above links to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

SOURCES:

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