Eight years ago today, the small town of Greensburg, Kansas, was reduced to rubble by an EF5 tornado 1.7 miles wide. Eleven people lost their lives, 90% of the town was destroyed and the buildings that were still standing were very badly damaged. In the aftermath, nearly half the town's residents relocated and the holdouts questioned whether to rebuild at all.

Fast-forward to the present, and Greensburg is a model for green building and sustainability. Within a week of the disaster, townspeople were already discussing whether to rebuild and how. The town that they knew and the infrastructure on which they relied were gone. They saw an opportunity to start fresh and do things differently.

How a whole town greened up its act

The town developed a comprehensive plan that reimagined and retooled nearly every aspect of the community. The plan included development for a new downtown area, ways to improve walkability, green building projects, economic development plans, energy efficiency and green energy, transportation, methods to reduce carbon emissions, housing projects and, of course, a plan for hazard mitigation.

It was decided that all government buildings larger than 4,000 square feet would be built to LEED-Platinum standards, the highest green building certification offered by the U.S. Green Building Council. Some local businesses followed suit and rebuilt their retail spaces to meet green standards as well. The new John Deere dealership was the first green John Deere dealership in the country. Goals for new housing were three-fold in that the town wanted dwellings to be sustainably built, a healthy mix of owned and rented properties and affordable.

Beyond green building, the town decided to green its infrastructure, too. The town is the first in the nation to be powered by 100% renewable energy, 100% of the time. Wind is the renewable-fuel favorite in Greensburg – a poetic touch of irony not lost on its residents. The force of nature that once destroyed the town is now the force that generates its power. Some homes and businesses generate their own energy on-site while others draw power produced from a wind farm outside the town.

Generating a different kind of green

Rebuilding and sustainability efforts are reviving the economy of this once-on-the-decline Midwest town. Before the devastating 2007 tornado, the tiny farming community was shrinking in population and struggling economically. After the slate was literally wiped clean, reconstruction and new green infrastructure provided the economic boost the town needed. Rebuilding created jobs and brought new investment to Greensburg. The novel approach the town took to rebuild it all greener drew attention from Discovery Channel and the Science Channel, which both produced TV series and mini-series on the town.

A new leader in green development emerges

Greensburg's success in sustainable reconstruction made the town a model for post-disaster rebuilding projects in similarly affected towns. Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Joplin, Missouri, have both reached out to Greensburg after experiencing their own devastating loses to tornados.

From a tragic disaster, the town of Greensburg was able to hold on to its sense of community and forge a greener, more sustainable new way of living and doing business in the Midwest.

Photo courtesy of Fred Hunt for The New York Times

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