This story is part of Red State Green Energy, a series about renewable energy endeavors in places where conservative politics or pro-business attitudes reign. This series is funded in part by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network’s Business & Sustainability Initiative.
On the night of May 4, 2007, when an EF5 tornado 1.7 miles wide swallowed their town whole, Gary and his daughter Alanna Goodman were watching Wedding Crashers in their upstairs living room. Gary had just called his wife Erica, away in Garden City, Kansas, on business, to comment on the massive hail that had interrupted the movie. Then the sirens started blaring.
It was common practice in Greensburg, Kansas, to run the aging siren system for only about three minutes during warnings. Residents would retreat to their basements, wait for silence, then go about their business. But according to Erica (and town lore, told and retold as part of the collective narrative of the event), on that Friday the county’s emergency management coordinator was storm chasing. Erica says he was in neighboring Comanche County when he witnessed three tornadoes drop and combine to make an almost two-mile-wide wedge and head straight north toward Greensburg.
“He called dispatch and he said, ‘Turn the sirens on,’ And she said, ‘How long should I run them?’” recalls Erica. “And he said, ‘Don’t you dare turn them off unless you hear from me.’”
Dispatch sounded the sirens until the wind razed the power station.
Greensburg is a town of roughly 800 souls scattered across a tidy 1.75-square-mile street grid about two hours west of Wichita. The 205-mile-per-hour tornado that took 12 lives and all but two buildings here has become an inflection point in the town’s identity, not just for the near-total destruction caused by the event itself, but for what came after it. Faced with rebuilding from the ground up, Greensburg decided to reinvent itself as America’s greenest town.
Today, it is one of a handful of places powered entirely by renewable energy. Its grass is largely irrigated with rainwater, its structures warmed by geothermal heat. Energy-efficient buildings, drought-resistant landscaping and LED lamp posts line its streets. These features have made it a magnet for disaster-recovery experts and green-curious policymakers. At the same time, even as it thrives in comparison to other rural communities, Greensburg is grappling with how to move forward as a place best known for what it did 15 years ago. It is a case study in the pros and cons of embracing sustainability primarily as an economic and marketing strategy, rather than as an environmental ideal.
John Janssen has witnessed the town’s evolution firsthand. Then-president of the city council and later the mayor, he is a broad man in his seventies wearing jeans held up by suspenders. Janssen wasn’t hunkered down in his basement when the tornado hit, but hours away attending a performance of Pamela Gien’s Syringa Tree at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. By 2:30 the next morning, he and his wife were back in Greensburg snaking their car around roadblocks and through debris. Every street sign, landmark and tree that had been there when he’d left was gone.
Almost as soon as emergency personnel allowed residents to sort through what remained of their rain-soaked property, Janssen and other leaders began to talk about how to rebuild.
He remembers meeting with the mayor, city manager and other council members in the parking lot of the severely damaged courthouse, one of the two buildings the tornado didn’t take. Within hours of the storm, assistance was flowing in from every possible level, from concerned individuals to federal agencies. The question now was how to maximize all that was being offered.
“About three days in, we’re down there under this little tent like you see at a golf tournament. We’re sitting there going, you know, it’s all well and good, and people want to help us do something there,” says Janssen. “But if you don’t have a hook that’s going to keep you at least semi in the limelight, this thing will die.”
Then and there, Janssen says he and a handful of others settled on their strategy for maintaining the public attention that felt essential to the town’s survival: they would go 100 percent green.
It was a radical idea in 2007 (and, to a large degree, still would be today) that they felt could help brand the town in the eyes of investors, aid givers and others with money to spend.
Daniel Wallach was part of the early planning. An entrepreneur who lives an hour north of town — the tornado missed his house by two miles — he didn’t think of going green as a gimmick. For him, it was about developing what he calls a “distinct identity” for Greensburg. He had founded the Colorado Association of Nonprofit Organizations, and worked with nonprofits on creating strategic and compelling campaigns. He knew how to leverage an issue to create buzz.
“Here’s a town that was suffering before this event,” says Wallach. “How are you going to come out of it and create a distinctive identity? With a name like Greensburg, this idea already made a lot of sense.”
Wallach and the rest of the group recognized that Greensburg needed more than a quick shot of federal aid. The town was entirely destroyed — it needed a strategy that could pay out for years to come.
Janssen recalls, “I told everybody — and I’ll guarantee it ticked people off — I said, ‘If you’re going to do exactly what we did before, the only thing you need to add is, you need to start ordering the plywood boards for the windows.’”
The idea of creating an entire town based on sustainability felt promising, but with few examples resembling Greensburg to look to, they weren’t sure where to start. As City Administrator Stacy Barnes puts it, “There’s no manual you pull off the shelf when there’s a disaster that says, ‘Here’s steps one-through-a-million what you do.’”
Wallach suggested they start with a question: What if something beautiful could come from the tragedy? “I always think that’s the way to approach people who are depressed from trauma and adversity,” he says. “How can you take this and transform it into something that serves you or others?”
That very night, the mayor went on national television and announced the green transformation of Greensburg to tens of millions of viewers. Janssen says they figured that such a declaration would lock them into the plan. In all public buildings, the mayor said, they’d have geothermal heating and cooling. Solar and wind power would provide electricity. Cisterns beneath the streets would capture storm runoff. Anything and everything that qualified as green in 2007 would be part of the effort.
In an instant, with only a vague idea of exactly what it would mean, Greensburg had itself one of the most ambitious sustainability agendas of any town in America.
Wallach and his wife Catherine Hart created a nonprofit called Greensburg GreenTown to help with fundraising, communication and organization. The Department of Energy contracted them as liaisons between the town and the rest of the world.
Just before the tornado, Janssen says the town had passed some very basic building codes to ensure proper construction. “When you’re out here in the boonies, people tend to just build. And so we at least had code specs that they had to meet.” After the green agenda announcement, however, no new building codes were created. The town’s current mayor, Matt Christenson, says that the city has never actually required green building practices; they felt that doing so in a town like Greensburg would elicit backlash. Instead, they simply encouraged sustainable design and showed how it would save money. The focus was on education and outreach, not mandates and restrictions.
After all, everything would be new: new insulation, new energy efficient appliances, new windows, new low-flow toilets. A sweeping upgrade was inevitable even for those who didn’t feel invested. Still, the most impressive features went into buildings run by the local government.
“There are solar panels on the roof of city hall producing right now, and on the Commons Building and Arts Center and Silo House,” Barnes says, beaming. The high school was built with recycled wood, geothermal heating and daylight-maximizing windows to cut down on energy usage. A lot of the sustainable features in Greensburg aren’t readily apparent because they’re part of the original design, not retrofits as they might be in another town. Barnes points out city hall’s solar panels. “Here, it’s incorporated into the sawtooth design of this roof to where it gets that southern exposure as part of that initial construction.”
Building this way costs roughly 20 percent more than conventional construction, but it quickly pays for itself in energy savings, according to Barnes. Yet Greensburg is finding that maintenance can be tricky. Repairs to a geothermal system, for instance, are more expensive than conventional HVAC, and qualified technicians often live as far away as Wichita. Wind turbines originally assigned to several buildings — like the high school, the Best Western and the hospital — caused maintenance concerns (the one at the hospital somehow fell down) and weren’t an efficient way to power the buildings, so the city removed them.
Now, Greensburg runs on wind energy that comes from a 10-turbine wind farm outside of town. And while this region of Kansas is rich in wind, it is poor in water, so rainwater-collecting cisterns located on high school property and nestled under Main Street feed the town’s irrigation and geothermal systems. While some of the cisterns are still doing their jobs, however, others are only collecting water at this point, their pumps no longer operational, another reflection of unfeasible maintenance costs.
Barnes grew up in Greensburg but lived four hours to the northeast in Lawrence, Kansas, at the time of the tornado. Within three months of that night, she’d moved back to be near her parents and her community.
“We still, to my knowledge, have the most LEED Platinum buildings per capita in the United States. We have curbside recycling. We’re 100 percent wind energy for our electricity,” she says as she walks along Main Street, playing tour guide.
Fifteen years on, admirers, advice-seekers and the just plain curious still show up at Greensburg’s door. Accommodating them is part of her job — she’d already done it twice the week I visited in August. She adds, as if she’s said it a hundred times before, “We went from being this sleepy little rural Kansas town, and then overnight there were national media here on Main Street.”
One of the biggest pay-offs, she says, is the closeness that members of the community feel to each other. As if on cue, Barnes’ mother walks out of the Arts Center. They wave to each other.
Moments later, in the Big Well Museum, the teenager working the desk asks Barnes, “Were you in Wichita on Saturday?” Their cars had passed on the highway and the girl had recognized the decorative license plate: Kansas colored green with a heart marking Greensburg.
Barnes admits that the town’s heart isn’t quite as green as it once was. With broken equipment comes difficult decisions. Repair the cisterns’ pumping mechanisms or put the money elsewhere? “In the end, sustainability and being green is also being able to afford it,” she says. You also need buy-in. From the beginning, Wallach saw that without the majority behind the decisions leadership wanted to make, the sustainable town’s new identity itself would not be sustainable.
“I knew the task from day one would be reaching people and helping them understand it wasn’t a political concept,” Wallach says. “That people in rural communities were the original recyclers, were conservationists; they had all these components in their values.”
Wallach recalls that about 300 homes went up in the first two years, and half of them followed the guidelines and standards developed by the Department of Energy for energy-efficient homes. “On average, they were 50 percent more energy efficient than the homes in town that hadn’t been built that way, so that represented a huge savings of money in power and circulates in the community. And so that was a huge win.”
The first year was especially productive and positive — heady times when just about anything felt possible. Janssen remembers frequent town meetings where everyone ate together and talked. One topic on the table was home ownership; people who hadn’t owned before now wanted to. The United Way in Wichita held a fundraiser and worked with the Farmers Home Administration to help prospective buyers make down payments. Janssen says that utility bills were projected to be so much lower that former renters realized they could now afford a mortgage.
Over time, however, it seems to Wallach that current leadership has lost some of its focus. Most new construction is conventional and doesn’t shoot for an LEED rating. Some new duplexes that recently went up followed standard city code. Greensburg’s green ambitions were always more about maintaining attention, and that goal has already been fulfilled.
Christenson, now in his third year as mayor, is still fielding requests for advice from mayoral candidates, earnest graduate students and people emerging from disasters around the world, from Joplin, Missouri, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Fukushima, Japan. “After the tornado, we were trying a lot of things that had not been tried anywhere, so we were somewhat of a living laboratory,” he says. “To this day, we still have some professional organizations, universities, asking us, ‘Okay what did you learn? How’d it go?’”
Christenson tells them all the same thing: Know your constituents and listen to them. Involve them in the process. Give them ownership.
Monetizing all of this attention has been hit or miss. The most successful way the town has done that has been in the form of tourism dollars. Bigger, more sustained investments have struggled to catch on. A media center, designed to offer training in TV and multimedia technology, hasn’t attracted all the folks it could accommodate, nor has a new business park, designed to fill up with businesses flocking to Greensburg.
In Christenson’s view, Greensburg can’t remain a novel experiment in perpetuity. All this attention on its past achievements can make residents feel like they’re stuck in a time warp. Erica Goodman says she closed her antique store for two months when the pandemic started. When they reopened, she imagined the drop-ins from curious tourists would have stopped. But people keep showing up, wanting to see the little town in Kansas that runs on rainwater, wind and heat pulled from the earth.
“That chapter of Greensburg is part of our past,” says Christenson, “and not so much our present and future.”
Barnes thinks that’s overstating it. In addition to retaining its original sustainable development, the city continues to evolve with new green features, recently installing electric car charging stations and a free bike sharing system for tourists. The spirit is still there, even if, as Barnes puts it, “It’s definitely not as in your face: ‘Come see our green, green, green stuff.’”
Unlike many other rural towns, the Greensburg of today is doing well. Even during the pandemic, the town hasn’t lost businesses, and few residents have lost their jobs. The school district grew this year from about 300 to 338 students.
“There are so many other ways to measure success,” says Barnes. “Yes, we all know that rural America is dwindling. How can we tell that story differently? Are businesses downtown thriving? Is every shop space full? Yes.”
This is what Greensburg’s leaders are trying to tell the world — that it’s more than just a place that accomplished something remarkable a decade and a half ago. Those decisions put Greensburg on the map and continue to pay dividends today, even as the town evolves.
A new effort aimed at recruiting young families and retirees called Live Kiowa is underway. Grant Neuhold, director of the Kiowa County Media Center, says that the campaign just brought a new doctor to town.
Neuhold himself is a 2010 transplant from rural Colorado. He likes the sustainability concept. But, he emphasizes, “We don’t want that to be our only identity. We’re doing so much more, like the media center. Yeah, we’re in a very highly sustainable building and we office out of that, but we’re so much more.”
Barnes’ biggest message for those seeking advice is that Greensburg’s story isn’t complete. It’s a living, working town like any other. And just like in any town, new challenges arise. There’s been talk of a pig or dairy farm opening just outside city limits. Janssen says that a new cheese factory is going up in Dodge City 45 minutes to the west, and that the company will put about 75,000 head of cattle a little north of Greensburg, where the water supply is good. Then there’s the Seaboard swine project he’s heard about, but to discuss it would be speculating.
Any of these enterprises could conflict with the town’s green brand, but they also have the potential to help Greensburg economically. It’s a delicate balancing act, being America’s most sustainable farming town.
As Barnes continues as tour guide, she points out how time and weather have acted on the set of stairs that lead nowhere in the field across from city hall, the sidewalks that disappear into grass, and the driveways that haven’t arrived at a garage in a decade and a half.
“They’re still reminders,” she says. “They’re disappearing here and there as we keep moving forward.”
Uncredited images in this story were provided by several sources, including the City of Greensburg, the Kiowa County Media Center, FEMA and the architecture firm BNIM.