After an EF5 tornado devestated the tiny town of Greensburg, Kansas, (then populartion 1,500) in 2007, the residents came together and did the unbelievable: Rebuilt as a sustainable town. Leading the charge were the mayor, city administrator, city council president (who assumed the role of mayor just three weeks after the storm), the governor (then Kathleen Sebelius), and two residents from nearby Stafford County: Daniel Wallach and Catherine Hart. In January, we sent photographer Alec Soth to document the town as it is today, nearly four years after the tornado struck, for our May 2011 Photo Issue. Here, we chat in further depth with Wallach about the days after the storm and the latest construction and developments.
Where were you when the tornado struck?
My wife, Catherine, and I live 35 miles northeast from Greensburg in neighboring Stafford County. There were 22 tornados in the area that night. The average one was 50-yards wide, and the one that hit Greensburg was 1.7-miles wide. It was only the second largest of the evening though: a three-mile-wide one came within miles from us. We were really lucky and didn’t lose anything.
How did you get involved with the rebuilding efforts in Greensburg?
A week after the storm, the first meeting was held in a big tent. Nobody had any idea how many people would show up because everybody ended up spread all over after the storm. It ended up that 500 of the 1,500 people living in Greensburg came. It was amazing. The mayor at the time, the city administrator, and Governor [at the time] Kathleen Sebelius were there. It was the first post-Katrina natural disaster so the federal government was bent on getting it right and committed a lot of resources to the cause. Everyone was trying to ensure that this was a success story. You couldn’t be at the meeting unless you lived in Greensburg or were very close to someone from the town, which is how Catherine and I were able to get in. We brought our concept paper about rebuilding as a green town and distributed it.
What was in this concept paper?
It was our vision of what the town might be if it embraced what we called the Green Initiative. The governor’s office and the mayor were also talking about this. The escalation of interest is what allowed us to propose it too.
What qualified you to come in and suggest this idea for this town that was your neighbor but not your own?
Catherine and I had suffered about a decade of illness, and it was our desire to make use of that experience. The whole town was feeling that kind of trauma and devastation we had gone through; we knew we could relate to them. We had started a natural food co-op and six families from Greensburg were in it so we already had familiarity there.
How did passing around your concept paper turn into founding Greensburg GreenTown?
Catherine and I had started a nonprofit when we lived in Denver—what is now the Colorado Nonprofit Association—so we knew there was a strong role for a local nonprofit to help facilitate and champion the initiative. These were people with their hands very full. It felt like if they would trust us to do this that it would happen. We did a lot of informational interviewing before we started; we knew in this politically conservative community that if they perceived that anything was being thrust upon them, as opposed to them authentically choosing it for themselves, that it would backfire. That was our work for the first couple months, just talking to people.
When you spoke with residents, what were their reactions about rebuilding as a green town?
We kept hearing, “I’m not and don’t want to be a treehugger.” Values are strong in rural areas; sustainable had to be authentic to them. We realized the most valuable thing we could do was reframe it in a way that did make it authentic to them. There was a lot of openness to the fact that their ancestors were environmentalists. They didn’t call themselves that but they lived off the land, hunted, and fished. They were the first to use cisterns to collect water, to build with solar orientation.
The residents of Greensburg did end up embracing the idea of becoming a sustainable community. In December 2007, just seven months after the tornado hit, the town passed a resolution requiring all publicly funded buildings be LEED Platinum certified.
I knew if this demographic could embrace sustainability then anybody could, which energized us. These are people with deep Midwestern values. They are the reddest of the red states. If they can depoliticize it, anyone can.
When did the green building begin?
Right away with the John Deere facility. The company is very iconic: it’s all about agriculture and they have a lot of credibility in the community. The people at John Deere were very open minded and forward thinking when we called and asked if they would consider this. They had already started building and ended up going back and looking at the plans again. It was courageous to go back to the drawing boards. Not only did it mean more money, but it also meant a delay in opening. It was huge; they ended up doing a LEED Platinum building.
Now there are more than 25 completed green projects in Greensburg and more in the works.
It’s been like a barn-raising, everybody coming together and doing their part for this collective vision. What happened wasn’t due to any one person or organization. It’s an example of what we can do when everyone comes together.
As part of Greensburg GreenTown, you’ve built the Silo Eco-Home as a B&B and sustainable green home to encourage eco-tourism. How many people have come to visit?
We’re expecting that this year we’ll see 5,000-6,000 people. The town is a living green science museum. It’s not theoretical; it’s something people can touch, feel, and see in action. The school is open for tours. The hospital is open for tours. There are the LED streetlights, the wind farm, some very green residences. The Eco-Homes will be state-of-the-art, sustainably designed residences that are open to the public and will be bed and breakfasts. Our goal is to have people come and experience that hey, solar isn’t weird and then show them how it works and how it interfaces with the house. There is signage throughout the Silo Eco-Home that tells the story of the materials and products. If you’re thinking about building a green home, you can come spend a night here first. We plan to have a number of homes so visitors can experience different styles of green building: wood block, concrete, straw bail.