GREENSBURG, Kan. — After a mammoth tornado wiped out most of this rural Kansas community in 2007, supporters of clean energy in the state seized on an unusual opportunity to rebuild a town from the ground up with the latest green technology.
They came up with a sustainable-power dreamscape: wind turbines to power hundreds of homes, futuristic buildings with environmentally friendly features and a gleaming new school that runs on less than half the water of its flattened predecessor.
But the much-publicized reimagining of Greensburg has failed to provide what it needs the most: people. The storm sent half the town packing, its fierce winds accelerating an exodus from rural Kansas that had been underway for decades.
Those who stayed now acknowledge that the reborn town is serving a population of only about 800 and is still looking for answers.
“Prior to the storm, we were a small Kansas community struggling to maintain and grow,” said Sue Greenleaf-Taylor, the city’s economic development director. “Now we are a small Kansas community which had a tornado struggling to maintain and grow.”
Greensburg’s economy, like much of rural Kansas, depends on the agriculture, oil and gas industries, where production advances have reduced the need for labor. The green-building-materials and bio-energy industries city leaders had hoped to entice never materialized.
The tornado that remade Greensburg, which is about 100 miles west of Wichita, was nearly two miles wide with winds topping 200 mph. It scraped most of the houses and the three-block business district to their foundations. At least 12 people died, and many predicted the town of nearly 1,500 would simply cease to exist.
But local leaders were enthralled by an idea proposed by then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and other clean-energy proponents, who saw a blank slate on which to create a better place. The Kansas prairie offered plentiful sunshine and powerful winds to provide power.
City leaders committed to rebuilding all municipal buildings to rigorous environmental standards. Nearly half of the 300 rebuilt homes used eco-friendly construction techniques, such as more effective insulation.
“We want to move boldly into the future,” Mayor Bob Dixson said at the time. “And we want to honor the past, but we don’t want to get hung up on it.”
The reconstruction used an estimated $75 million in federal, state and local government money, along with more from insurance settlements and other private investments.
The eco-makeover has given Greensburg a distinctive look. The rural Kansas archetypes of clapboard and brick houses were replaced by things like the Silo Eco-Home, a round concrete structure built to sustain hurricane-force winds and conserve resources with dual-flush toilets that handle solid and liquid waste differently.
The new city hall, built with bricks reclaimed from the storm-demolished municipal power plant, has solar panels and ground-source heat pumps. The renovated courthouse features geothermal heating and a 15,000-gallon cistern for storing reusable rainwater. A wind farm was built to power up to 4,000 homes, while the city’s K-12 school has its own wind generator.
But problems with the rebirth are also evident. Empty lots with walkways leading nowhere share neighborhoods with new homes. In the new downtown, streets are eerily quiet in the middle of the day. Just over half the space in a new business incubator has been filled.
Stacy Barnes, 32, was living in the college town of Lawrence with her husband and two young children when the tornado destroyed her parents’ home. She moved back to Greensburg and became its director of tourism.
“Twenty-five years from now, I want to be able to look back and say, ‘I was a part of all that,’” Barnes said.
How to reverse the trend is the question. Greensburg’s population peaked at nearly 2,000 people in 1960.
If Greensburg attracts new industries and catches on with people in their 20s and 30s as a “cool place” to move, then it’s possible to revitalize from the bottom up, said Laszlo Kulcsar, director of the Kansas Population Center at Kansas State University.
“Assuming nothing has changed because of the tornado — like a completely new economy — my guess is it is not going to be rebuilt to where it was before the tornado,” he said. “It is impossible.”