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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tornado Recovery As a Pathway to Sustainability

Air Date: Week of

In 2007 a massive tornado tore a path of destruction through the small town of Greensburg, Kansas. Four years later the town has been rebuilt using green technology and building practices. Bruce Gellerman talks with Mayor Bob Dixson about how Greenburg re-invented itself as a sustainable city. (Photo: Alec Soth, Dwell Magazine)


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. The recent record outbreak of devastating tornados was a grim reminder for residents of Greensburg, Kansas. Four years ago, on the night of May 4th 2007, a twister tore through the city not far from the geographic heart of America. It was the first tornado rated EF-5 using the new classification system. With winds wider than the city whipping around at 210 miles an hour, Greensburg didn’t stand a chance. It was totaled. Not a tree, not a home could withstand the tornado. Twelve people died.

In the days after, Greensburg residents dug out and vowed to rebuild. The Town Council passed a resolution that all city buildings had to be LEED Platinum certified - the highest energy efficiency standard there is. Today, Greensburg is the greenest city on Earth, and Bob Dixson is the proud mayor.

DIXSON: Right now we like to refer to us as a living laboratory. Implementing all those concepts that our ancestors knew about: how to take advantage of the wind, of solar, of passive solar, and being good stewards of our resources - and that way, we have something that will last lifetimes.

The new bank in Greensburg. (Photo: Alec Soth for Dwell)

GELLERMAN: So you do have a wind farm there, yeah?

DIXSON: Yes, we have a community wind farm. There’s ten turbines that generate twelve and a half megawatts combined, and that more than powers our city and the rest of it goes on the grid. And we have the highest concentration of geothermal wells per capita of anywhere in the world. From the school, to city hall, to business complex downtown, hospital…we even have private residences that have put in geothermal wells.

GELLERMAN: You also have solar - what do you need the solar for?

DIXSON: We have used solar on some of the buildings as more or less a test site to see what really we can capture, in combination with all the alternative energies of wind and solar and geothermal, to achieve as close as we can to a neutral carbon footprint. I just know in the residential areas - all the new homes are being built - we’re seeing cost savings and energy consumption savings of well over 50 percent, and some of them are seeing as high as 70 to 75 percent savings over what they had before.

GELLERMAN: You’re in the city hall now, right?


GELLERMAN: Boy, it’s very spiffy - it looks like something out of “The Jetsons.”

DIXSON: Well it’s a unique architectural design, but yet a lot of it is back to basics. All the brick on city hall is reclaimed from our electrical power plant that was destroyed in the tornado. A lot of the wood on the façade and inside is all reclaimed from an army depot plant. We tried to make sure that we utilized as much building materials that would reclaim and recycle those materials, instead of always coming up with new.

A reminder of the EF5 storm that wiped out most of the town. (Photo: Alec Soth for Dwell)

GELLERMAN: Now I see that you used a form of construction which I had never heard of before: insulated concrete form blocks. What’s an insulated concrete form block?

DIXSON: Well those are just like Legos - they just stack together to form the walls. They have styrofoam on the inside and the outside, and the middle is open - there’s about 8 inches there. And then you put your reinforcement bar, or rebar, in and then you just pour that full of concrete.

GELLERMAN: Why is that sustainable? Why is that green?

DIXSON: A lot of the concrete we’re using here - we’re using as high as 25 percent fly ash in that concrete. And fly ash is a byproduct of our coal-fired generators. And so by mixing that in, you can extend the concrete volume-wise and it also maintains the strength of concrete.

The new sustainably-built city hall. (Photo: Alec Soth for Dwell)

GELLERMAN: So Greensburg is literally rising out of the ashes.

DIXSON: Yes we are - and we’re rising above the rubble, and we like to say we’re building as green as we can with the green that we have available.

GELLERMAN: Was there any dissent within the town - any residents who didn’t want to go green?

DIXSON: There is always that faction in anything we do in society. I had that preconceived notion of what “green” really was, but we had to market it to our citizens and to ourselves as city council that it’s about sustainability. It’s about the ability to endure - the ability to leave that legacy for future generations. What we have done here and tried to make sure is that we transcended politics on the environmental stewardship issue and not make it about a right or a left issue, a Republican or a Democrat issue. It’s about our issue as citizens of this planet - is to do the best we can where we’re planted.

A billboard on the way into Greensburg, KS. (Photo: Alec Soth for Dwell)

GELLERMAN: Mayor, looking back on the experience of Greensburg, do you have a message for the people in the South that were devastated by the tornadoes in April?

DIXSON: Well the first thing: they need to depend on their faith, their family, and their friends - because it’s those things that are truly sustainable in life. We found out that no matter what your social-economic status was in the community, you lost everything. And so the only true sustainable thing we had left was each other.

Residents also rebuilt their houses in a green way. (Photo: Alec Soth for Dwell)

GELLERMAN: Well, Mayor Dixson, it’s been a real pleasure. Good luck to you and your city!

DIXSON: Bruce, I really thank you for the time, and I just encourage everyone to do what they can to be good environmental stewards.

GELLERMAN: Bob Dixson is the Mayor of the green, green city of Greensburg, Kansas.



Read a Reader’s Digest article about the rebuild

Visit the non-profit Greensburg Greentown’s website

Read the Dwell Magazine article and see more photos by Alec Soth.

See more of Alec Soth's photography


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