Saturday, December 27, 2008

A green revolution in the heartland

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I recently wrote a short paper about Greensburg, Kansas, a small town that was almost entirely destroyed by a tornado in May of 2007. It is hard to overstate the destruction this town faced. The real story, though, is how the town decided to rebuild: by becoming the greenest town in America. Like many small towns, Greensburg was losing population, especially young people, before the tornado. After its renewal effort, though, the town has a new sense of purpose and hopes to keep and attract residents. The following is some excerpts from my paper illustrating the destruction and the rebuilding:

"The tornado that destroyed Greensburg was part of a massive system of tornados that hit the plains Midwest. Recent research found that 22 storms in total struck roughly within the same time period. The death toll reached eleven, mercifully small considering the incredible destruction. A warning had sounded throughout the town twenty minutes before the tornado hit. One resident described how the local convenience store owner pulled her and several others into the store’s cooler after the alarm sounded. When they emerged, the building around them had collapsed.

In the days and first few weeks after the tornado, it was not clear the town would survive. It was an open question whether older residents and those with young children had the time or resources to rebuild after this level of devastation. As one survivor noted, a town without schools or medical facilities would be a hard place to raise a child. In the end, 95% of the buildings in town, including over 900 homes, were destroyed. The history of whole-town reconstruction is complicated, and not universally happy.

Three months after the tornado hit, Greensburg published its “Long-Term Community Recovery Plan”. Created in conjunction with the office of Governor Kathleen Sebelius and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the 86 page plan describes no less than 21 discrete goals, most with sub-goals. They reflect both the basic needs of the town (“rebuild medical and emergency service facilities”) as well as its ambitious vision (“prepare a sustainable comprehensive plan”). The citizens of Greensburg took an active role in developing the plan. The town held four meetings to solicit input and feedback, with attendance averaging 400 (more than a quarter of the total population).

A little after the one-year anniversary of the tornado, the Greensburg city council adopted the Sustainable Comprehensive Master Plan. The Master Plan describes in detail the new ethos the town is committed to. All new city building will be built following the LEED Standards for sustainable building. The residents themselves are being helped to rebuild their homes and businesses according to similar sustainable criteria. Development is planned in a way to cut down on driving and encourage a walk-able community. The city is even setting the groundwork for generating its own renewable energy, with the goal to power the entire city with this new energy."

Greensburg’s efforts raise a lot of interesting questions about local government, rural culture, and environmentalism. I’ll save those for other posts. For now, check out their website. What this town is doing is really impressive. I, for one, think it is amazing that a small town on the plains of Kansas is the cutting edge of sustainability. I hope you find their story as inspiring as I do. Here's a link.

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