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Town destroyed by tornado rebuilds to go green, be eco-friendly

Posted at 1:48 PM, Jan 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-08 13:56:54-05

After a town was destroyed by a tornado in 2007, officials knew they wanted to rebuild something better.

Debbie Boyle, who owns Last Tangle—a hair salon in Greensburg, Kansas—hasn’t forgotten the storm that destroyed their hometown. She says most people who come into the salon have their stories from that day.

“So, then you get to talking about it again, and I don't know, sometimes it’s like you don’t want to talk about it," she said.

Greensburg, Kansas is a town of less than 1,000 people and located a couple of hours away from Wichita, surrounded by miles of farmland. On May 4, 2007, an EF-5 tornado tore through the town, killing 12 people and destroying 95 percent of the town.

Stacy Barnes was living away from her hometown as a recent college graduate on that night in 2007. Today, she serves in one of the most powerful seats in town: city administrator.

“I remember pulling up to what was my parents' house or what was left and saying out loud, ‘This is it? This can’t be it?’ Just because there was nothing left," Barnes recalled.

Beneath that rubble, the city leaders at the time saw a clean slate to rebuild.

“The idea came very early to build in a sustainable manner, using green features in a lot of buildings," Barnes said.

What’s risen is one of the greenest communities in America. Many of the town's buildings were made with recycled materials, and now, you can find stations to charge electric cars.

The entire town of Greensburg is fueled by the very force of nature that left it in ruins: wind.

“All of our power here in Greensburg is wind energy; there is a wind farm south of town," Barnes said.

"It was just the day that your life, all of our lives, changed," said resident Staci Derstein.

More than 13 years later, her memories of the night the tornado hit are still clear. She lost her home. There were no requirements homes had to be rebuilt "green," but Derstein says her family did the best they could.

Today, nearly every corner of the buildings she oversees as the local school superintendent is designed to save energy.

“The rooms are set up with a system that senses how much light is coming in the windows, so the lights use a little less electricity," she said, pointing to the ceiling of a classroom.

A geothermal ventilation system moves fresh air in and out of classrooms, a bonus during the pandemic as each classroom is on its own system so air isn't shared throughout the school.

“If we didn’t have a tornado, we wouldn’t have a system like this," Derstein said.

Disaster relief money and private investments have paid for many of the green features in town.

"I think a sustainable rebuild has worked. Has everything panned out exactly how we thought? Absolutely not, nothing is perfect," Barnes said.

Greensburg pulled the plug on wind turbines to power individual buildings in town, opposed to getting its energy from the private windfarm it does now when leaders decided the cost outweighed the benefits.

"The maintenance cost for them ended up being way, not affordable or sustainable," explained Barnes.

Boyle lost her original hair salon in the tornado. Her current space is next to the only building on Main Street to survive, a two-story brick antique building.

"I told myself, ‘I’m not going to let this win,’" Boyle said of the tornado and the challenge of starting over again.

Each year, disaster turns communities across the country upside down. In 2020, hurricanes battered the Gulf Coast and wildfires burned throughout the west, changing the landscape of places like Lake Charles, Louisiana and the communities of southern Oregon forever.

Those in Greensburg say rebuilding is as much about the kind of energy that powers a building as it is the kind of will that fuels the people to take on the challenge.

“You won’t find this endpoint where life will be perfect again. It is about enjoying each day and taking every small victory and moving forward," Derstein said.