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!
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.
- 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.
5. Laudable environmental conservation and sustainability steps taken since the 2007 tornado, include, but are not limited to:
- Adopted a Sustainable Comprehensive Master Plan.
- First city in the United States with all LED street lights throughout the community.
- Home to more LEED certified buildings per capita than any other community in the nation.
- World’s first prefabricated metal building to be LEED certified.
- First city in the world to require all municipal buildings 4,000 square feet or greater to be LEED certified.
- The first LEED Platinum-certified building in Kansas – the 5.4.7. Arts Center
- Nation’s first LEED Platinum-certified critical access hospital.
- The entire city is powered by electricity from renewable sources.
- The city has single-stream curbside recycling — the city and Kiowa County have set a goal of recycling 80-85 percent of recyclable solid waste.
- Water conservation efforts include installing low-flow fixtures, native plantings, and the collecting of rainwater for irrigation purposes and to supply grey water for toilets.
- Many businesses that did remain in Greensburg rebuilt with much more sustainable and efficient structures, including the greenest Best Western in the hotel chain, at the time of completion.
- Free “Greensburg bikes” are available for use to residents and visitors.
- Model eco-homes have been built in the city to promote and demonstrate sustainable design.
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:
- Folks moving away and/or not rebuilding after the disaster – in part due to the entire town being destroyed, leaving few housing/work options in the aftermath and partly due to inadequate insurance coverage to rebuild.
- Young people moving away after school – a problem endemic to many rural communities
- Businesses not reopening after the storm
- New businesses not locating in Greensburg, perhaps to avoid costs associated with building sustainably
- Differences within the community on the success (or lack thereof) of the sustainability programs
- Macroeconomic and societal factors, some of which are unique to rural communities
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:
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.
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.
- Fox, Thomas, J. Green Town U.S.A. 2013
Greensburg made one BIG mistake that this story omits. They could have easily avoided it by hiring me to help with recovery; I offered within days, with info. Instead they hired some highfalutin’ company with a long record and high production values for its graphics. In the multi-page plan, the word “tornado” isn’t mentioned, and there’s NO requirement in the building code for highly tornado-resistant construction, of “safe rooms” per FEMA publications (e.g. FEMA 320, first out in 1999) and their urging. I’m as much into “green building” as anyone – but the greenest building is one which survives the natural hazards the place is vulnerable to. Greensburg has blinders on and is in deep denial about the future tornado risk. I’ve pointed this out when the rebuilding situation was new, and apparently have to keep saying it for decades.