Sunday, June 16, 2024

Portrait of a Kansas town that went all-in on clean energy after a devastating tornado » Yale Climate Connections

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When Anita Hohl heard the wind screaming through her windows 17 years ago, she knew this storm was different. It sounded like a high-pitched woman’s shriek, portending the fear so many felt that night.

As the tornado sirens went off, she and her three kids crawled into a small closet underneath the stairs in the basement of a rental house on the south side of Greensburg, Kansas. 

Her husband Rick had remained upstairs, transfixed by the incoming storm. But when the windows exploded and he saw a neighbor’s six-horse trailer get lofted into the air and hurtle toward their house, he rushed to join them downstairs. The walls and foundation of the house shook violently. Dirt rained down on them from the floorboards as a monster tornado with winds over 200 mph roared over their town. 

After 20 minutes, they emerged from the basement to find their roof gone and chaos everywhere. 

Photo of trees with broken limbs surrounded by debris from destroyed buildings.
Greensburg, Kansas, days after the tornado. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Big Well Museum)

Greensburg was mostly destroyed by the tornado of May 4, 2007. Some homes on the outskirts were repairable. But most of the core of the town was completely wiped out.

Debris was everywhere. Hohl’s son’s bedsheet was lodged in a tree, where it would stay for 10 years. And the town’s roughly 1,400 residents had to not only figure out how to put their own lives back together but how to rebuild the town and the community that many had been part of for generations. 

Photo of a highway underneath a blue sky and fluffy clouds Photo of a highway underneath a blue sky and fluffy clouds
The main highway that runs through Greensburg. (Photo credit: Charlie Randall. Unless otherwise noted, all photos in this story are by Charlie Randall.) 

The decision they made, not to rebuild the town as it was, but to use the tragedy as an opportunity for reinvention, made Greensburg a pioneer in the clean energy revolution. Today, many cities and towns around the world are racing to stave off the climate crisis by constructing environmentally friendly buildings and switching to renewable energy — steps that Greensburg began taking almost two decades ago. So I decided to visit the town to check in on its progress and learn what residents think about the transition today. 

Building back greener 

After the tornado, multiple businesses committed to returning and some established families did, too, though many older residents chose not to rebuild. At town meetings, an idea emerged that Greensburg should build back green. 

Photo of a crowd of people meeting under a white-and-red-striped tent Photo of a crowd of people meeting under a white-and-red-striped tent
A town meeting shortly after the tornado where residents and officials decided to build back differently. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Big Well Museum)

The town brought in outside sustainability consultants, who helped residents draw up plans to rebuild Greensburg at the highest level of sustainable architecture and energy consumption. 

Kansas sits in one of the top areas for wind generation in the country. So the community decided that wind, too, would be Greensburg’s future.

Some residents grumbled about unnecessary and costly changes, even about outside influences peddling green nonsense for the rich. And some left altogether, feeling like the new direction was leaving them behind. 

“There’s a pretty good libertarian streak where we’re at in rural Kansas,” Mayor Matt Christenson said in a recent interview. “People don’t really like being told what they can and can’t do.”

And even though no mandates for green building were ever implemented for residences or businesses, a mistaken perception of a mandate remains.

But others expressed pride and enthusiasm about the changes the town has made since that day 17 years ago. 

Tim Morton and Levi Smith were teenagers when the tornado hit. When the two returned to high school in the fall, in trailers set up by FEMA, they and a few other students helped create a green group at the high school that helped advocate for sustainable changes big and small. They recycled Christmas trees, attended council meetings and green building conferences, and told everyone who would listen that they wanted that future to be one that was environmentally sound and one that they could be proud of. 

The changes 

photo of a brick wallphoto of a brick wall
The outer facade of Greensburg City Hall.

In the years that followed, the new city hall was built in part using salvaged bricks from the destroyed diesel generation plant outside of town. That building, along with the library, arts center, business incubator, hospital, and high school, all achieved the highest rating from LEED, a sustainable architecture framework. Other nongovernmental buildings, including the local mortuary, also attained LEED Platinum status, the highest possible rating.

Photo of a cylindrical concrete dwelling with a few windows Photo of a cylindrical concrete dwelling with a few windows
A silo home in Greensburg. It has a concrete-insulated foundation, and its circular shape is designed to withstand extreme tornado winds.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a division of the Department of Energy, provided energy modeling to residents and businesses, showing them how much money could be saved in the long term by investing in energy-efficient windows, heat pumps, or solar panels. Many residents took the advice, rebuilding with energy-efficient practices — along with practices that make buildings more resistant to tornado damage. 

Ten windmills installed about a mile outside of town began generating 100% of the electricity the small town needed. Many buildings in Greensburg today sport solar panels.

Photo of a line of wind turbines Photo of a line of wind turbines
The 10 windmills installed just outside of Greensburg.

Greensburg also installed all LED streetlights, then a novel technology that is now commonplace in towns and cities nationwide. 

Reflections on the changes, 17 years later 

Walking around Greensburg now, you’ll see the scars of the tornado everywhere. Empty lots where houses once stood. “Tornado trees” that were severely damaged in the storm but have survived and sprouted new growth. On one lot, the only thing left is a tornado shelter bulging out of the ground. Many overgrown properties have driveways and staircases that lead to nothing. 

This somewhat eerie presence is countered by large-lot family homes, small-scale apartments, gardens, multiple parks, a pool, and streets so wide they could be mistaken for highways.

These days, Greensburg boasts a high employment rate and many appealing community initiatives, such as the arts center, one of the first buildings erected after the tornado. 

Photo of a cowboy on horseback attempting to capture a horse Photo of a cowboy on horseback attempting to capture a horse
Photo of two children who are entranced as they watch the rodeo Photo of two children who are entranced as they watch the rodeo
A night at the rodeo in Greensburg.

But Hohl sometimes worries that as the town pushed for high-tech green energy solutions, residents overlooked small-scale, simple approaches like composting or hanging laundry out to dry. 

And Mayor Christenson acknowledged that housing was an incredible struggle.

“Many of the rental units before the tornado were either underinsured or not insured at all, so didn’t get built back,” he said. “And now with an extremely tight housing market, finding a viable way for developers to build units that will break even and be affordable to rural Kansans is a difficult task.” 

Photo of stairs and a foundation with no building on top Photo of stairs and a foundation with no building on top
An abandoned lot that hasn’t been rebuilt.

And though job opportunities and commerce are doing relatively well, the town’s recovery has also proved difficult in other areas. A large business park area was created on the east side of town not long after the tornado but today sits empty. The town at one point had interest from a tech company looking for a place to build a data center, but the center would have required 100 times the energy that Greensburg itself consumes. The plan was abandoned.

Though not everything has been smooth, the fact is that Greensburg was part of the beginning of a major transition in energy usage. In the years after the tornado, 7% of Kansas’ energy consumption was generated by renewable energy (almost all wind). Today that number is nearly 50%. The change has been so seamless that many who’ve moved here since the tornado aren’t even aware of it. 

Photo of a mural with colorful stars and text. The text reads, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world indeed it's the only thing that ever has. margaret mead" Photo of a mural with colorful stars and text. The text reads, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world indeed it's the only thing that ever has. margaret mead"

Tim Morton and Levi Smith, the two residents who were teens when the tornado struck, expressed pride in the town today.

“It’s really easy to be proud of Greensburg,” Smith said. 

“People might be against some of this stuff, but when I tell them the library I work at has no utility bills, they can’t really argue with that,” Morton said. 

That such a tragic event was the impetus for such positive, dramatic social change is hard to process. Eleven people died here. The trauma of that event will live forever with the people who went through it. And yet it seems unlikely that these changes would have happened on their own. 

I’ve always been pessimistic about humanity’s engagement with the natural world. 

But being in Greensburg, meeting some of its residents, and seeing the changes they made and the incredible, endless landscapes of thousands of wind turbines throughout the Plains made me realize that we are (even if somewhat too late, and not fast enough) making a lot of the changes we need to, on the path to no longer choking ourselves and our atmosphere with fossil fuel emissions.

And while Greensburg was initially a victim of the wind, it is now using this renewable resource to power itself into the future. 

Photo of night sky and an illuminated grain elevator Photo of night sky and an illuminated grain elevator
The grain elevator in Greensburg was one of the few major buildings to withstand the tornado.

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