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The Greening of Greensburg

Very early on the morning on May 5, 2007 I got a call from NBC News to hurry from Denver to Greensburg, Kansas.  There had been a huge tornado and the town was devastated.  Go! Go!  When I pulled into the town six hours later I was stunned to see wreckage so complete that even the bark had been pulled off the trees.  These skeleton sentinals stood over a community of people who were lost and dazed.  The EF-5 tornado had 205 mile per hour sustained winds.  Almost the entire town was in ruins.  It was apocalyptic.

The grain elevator was one of the few buildings left standing in Greensburg, Kansas after an EF-5 tornado destroyed the town on May 4, 2007.

It was hard to imagine coming back from that scene or even having the will to rebuild but Greensburg is a plucky town.  One of the residents, who is now the mayor, Bob Dixson, had a sign on his property within days.  It read “Future home of the Dixson family.  We are blessed.”   They were still optimistic.  I guess when you consider that 11 of their neighbors had died and many more were injured, they were among the lucky ones.  I took this photo when I was out there covering the disaster.  The powerful image made me feel hopeful.

The sign in the rubble of Bob Dixson's home in Greensburg, Kansas following the tornado. He and his wife were among the first who decided to rebuild.

The town decided to pull itself out of the rubble by capitalizing on the Green in Greensburg.  They would come back environmentally friendly and create a community that was truly sustainable.   Over the years I had pitched this story to various news outlets with little success but when Budget Travel magazine singled Greensburg out as one of the coolest small towns in America I had a newsworthy hook and HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports said let’s do the story.

Almost five years later I returned to Greensburg and what I saw was as stunning as that first post disaster morning.  The town is cleaned up and there are beautiful new buildings.  The school, the hospital, City Hall and the John Deere dealership are all built back to the highest environmental standard called LEED Platinum.  There is a pretty little Main Street with shops and even a business incubator sponsored by Sun Chips.  People are living in new eco-friendly homes and are saving up to 2/3 on their utility bills.  And there are wind turbines everywhere powering the community.  Imagine using the same wind that destroyed you to help resurrect yourself!

Bob Dixson's eco-friendly rebuilt home today.

Greensburg still has its work cut out for it.  The town has half as many people as it once did but they are determined to repopulate.  Like many of the small towns in rural America, Greensburg had been dying.  But even after the tornado the folks there said we are not dead yet.  So they set out to create a sustainable future, a vision for their tomorrow that would make Greensburg a place children would want to stay, that would be attractive to new families, invite companies to relocate, and create jobs and economic development.

What’s extraordinary here is that folks in Greensburg are very conservative.  These are not tree huggers but they realized that by going green they could build a community of the future.  Today they are an inspiration for other cities reeling from disasters like tornado ravaged Joplin, Missouri and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  In a time when huge disasters seem to come at us with alarming frequency, Greensburg is showing us how to rebuild and recover.  And the message they send is that green goes with their rural values.  It is just common sense.

The foundation of a new Greensburg is in place.  It has been a gut wrenching process for people who lost everything to imagine something this big when it would have been so much easier to somewhere else.  As the town approaches the fifth anniversary of the tornado this May, they have an enormous amount to be proud about.  I personally would like to go back in five years and see how much farther they have come.  If you are traveling along Highway 54 pull off at Greensburg and see what’s been accomplished.  And if you can’t do that, watch tonight on HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports to see the hard work and ingenuity that brought Greensburg back.

Our Dan Rather Reports crew in Greensburg, Kansas during October 2011 covering the remarkable comeback of the town.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit Teletrends Television Production and Development.

For more of Vicky’s photographs visit Vicky Collins Photography.

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Remembering Uncle Ted

I had a hunch as soon as I sat down by Scott on the flight to Anchorage that he was on his way to the funeral of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens.  He was in a suit with a Lockheed Martin pin and was busily cranking away on his Blackberry.  Once we were airborne we started to talk and he regaled me with stories of his days as a staff member for the Senator who died along with four others on August 9 in a plane crash near Dillingham, Alaska.  He told me of his travels around the world (he even went to Antarctica) with Senator Stevens when he worked in appropriations and budgeting on Capitol Hill, but one of his best stories was about a fishing trip he took with the late Senator when he was a young staffer.  He accompanied the boss to Alaska and was surprised to be invited along on a fishing expedition.  The weather was miserable so they could not go out to where the King salmon or even where the Silvers were.  Instead they found themselves in a pile of Pinks which Alaskans respect about as much as they do herring.  It was raining and frigid and they fished in their yellow slickers.  After a couple of hours their other companions went below.  Even the captain said they should head in.  But Senator Stevens knew there was a Silver salmon out there somewhere so he kept going.  About six hours into the trip he caught the elusive fish and they finally turned around and headed for shore.  Scott told me this was typical of the optimism of Senator Ted Stevens.  He referred to him as the “Energizer Bunny” a couple of times over the hours that we spoke.  The funeral of Senator Stevens is today in Anchorage.  It is hard to find a hotel room in town.  It is full of people like Scott who have come to honor the Senator and tell stories and reminisce about their friend, Uncle Ted.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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River Jordan Redux

In June 2009 I posted a blog about the dire condition of the River Jordan and how a unique collaboration of Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians are cooperating to save it and care for the needs of a parched region.  National Geographic Magazine has done the story “Parting the Waters” for its April edition on Water.  It showcases the environmental dilemma, the political issues that have led to it, and how Friends of the Earth Middle East is committed to solving the crisis.  What’s striking about the story is that, despite the lack of cooperation in the Mideast, people are managing to collaborate over water.  They are fighting together for a resource they can’t live without.     

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/04/parting-the-waters/belt-text

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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Gretzky Lights the Flame

Immediately after the opening ceremony people began to run.  They hoofed it to the International Broadcast Centre to see the after party.  Wayne Gretzky rode in a flatebed truck with the Olympic torch aloft to light an external flame outside the building.  The crowd went wild, shouting “Gretzky, Gretzky, Gretzky.”  Amazing to see how Canadians adore The Great One.  A Shaun White look alike and his sidekicks led the crowd in the rousing anthem “O Canada” while another man in a red maple leaf jacket got the crowd cheering “we want gold!”  This Olympics Canadians believe they can win.  The flame was framed by spectacular fireworks over the harbor.  Afterward, I walked in the light rain back to my hotel on Granville Street.  The crowd was rowdy, cheering, festive.  A little wet weather is not going to dampen the Olympic spirit tonight.

For more on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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Hawaii’s Big Waves

Hawaii is seeing the biggest waves in 40 years.  We were at this exact spot on the North Shore of Oahu at the end of October.  Waimea Bay was calm and my son, Blair, jumped off the rocks that these people are videotaping from.  To give perspective Da Big Rock, as it is called, is about 75 feet high. Earlier this week the waves were up to 50 feet and the most courageous big wave riders on the planet came out for the Eddie Aikau competition which is only held if the waves are over 20 feet. The stars aligned. Surf’s up big time!

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Blair and the Balloon Boy

Balloon Boy Media Circus

Balloon Boy Media Circus

My 11 year old son, Blair, wanted to go to Cirque du Soleil this year, but because our schedules were so busy, we missed it.  Instead he went to the Balloon Boy media circus.  Because my husband was traveling and I was a single mom over the weekend I didn’t want to leave him at home while I was working 24/7 for NBC News.  Instead I took him with me and put him to work.  We have not seen a story like this in Colorado since John Mark Carr claimed he killed Jonbenet Ramsey.  News media came from all over the world.  There were London newpapers, two Brazilian networks, Japanese TV and tabloid shows.  Booking for guests was knock down drag out competitive.  At one point there were 20 cameras and nine live trucks outside the Heene house.  There was even a fistfight when an irate neighbor got into it with Fox News.  It was a total zoo.

To review, Richard and Mayumi Heene from Fort Collins, Colorado launched a flying saucer and alerted the media and authorities that their six year old son, Falcon, was aboard.  The whole world watched and prayed for the little boy tumbling in the sky as the drama unfolded on television.  Across the globe people celebrated the joyous news when Falcon was found alive, hiding in the attic all along.  Then whoops!  Falcon blurts out on CNN’s Larry King Live that he was hiding “because you said it was for the show.”  He threw up the next morning on NBC’s Today Show.  Sheriff Jim Alderden now says it was all a hoax so that the family could get a reality show of their own.  Unlikely that will happen any more but they could get jail time for felony charges.  Attorney David Lane is on the case.  The Heene’s certainly are infamous now.   

Initially, my son Blair hoped to meet young Falcon.  That didn’t happen and in the end he was an extra set of eyes on the Heene’s back yard and the Larimer County Sheriff’s back door.  He helped get the crews lunch, hung out with onlookers and media and even videotaped on his camera.  At one point he told a neighbor friend of the Heene’s “he was digging up dirt for his mom.”  Ouch!  Out of the mouths of babes.  We had to have the talk about discretion after the same neighbor told me it was tacky.  Blair went home from “take your kid to work day” with a better view of the intensity and insanity that comes with a huge story.  He even got interviewed for Entertainment Tonight!

For more information on Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.


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Hurricane Season

William Gray, Phillip Klotzbach and their forecasters at Colorado State University have come out with their predictions for the 2009 Atlantic hurricane season which runs from June 1 to November 30.  It’s expected to be active with three hurricanes becoming major Category 3 storms.  In the press release they remark, “NOAA’s National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center says there is a 70 percent chance of having nine to 14 named storms,  four to seven of which could become hurricanes, and one to three major hurricanes (winds 115mph or greater). If this comes to pass, these numbers would reflect an average number and intensity of tropical cyclones.”

Over the last years there have been extremely powerful hurricanes that have made landfall in the United States including Rita, Wilma and the apocalyptic Katrina which struck New Orleans during the deadly season of 2005.  Hurricane Ivan was the strongest hurricane of the season in 2004.  It wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and at one point was a Category 5 storm the size of Texas.

Hurricane Ivan approaches Key West

Hurricane Ivan approaches Key West

Correspondent Martin Savidge, the crew and I were dispatched to Key West, Florida to cover the storm for NBC News.  Driving 100 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico there was great tension as the storm approached, even more so than in other storms I have chased.  Traveling out to Key West that day I realized we were there to stay.  Once the winds started howling and the water started rising there would be absolutely no way to get off the remote key.  At one point forecasters predicted a direct hit on the low lying island.  A bullseye would put Key West under water.  When we checked into the hotel we had to sign a form saying we understood the risks and knew we were taking our lives in our own hands.  Even for seasoned hurricane chasers there was a feeling of approaching danger.  It rained like hell but at the end of the day Ivan skirted the island and saved its wrath for Gulf Shores, Alabama where it hit as a Category 3.  Once the storm passed by Key West there was a palpable sense of relief on the island.  Those who didn’t evacuate and hunkered down came out into the light and crowded into the bars.  Key West, which was all boarded up, returned to its merry ways.  I took this picture of a man who told me his name was Ca$h.  To me he epitomized the care free ebullience that returned to Key West, Florida after it was spared by Hurricane Ivan.  I have received more comments on this photo than any other I have taken.  I smile whenever I think of Ca$h.     

Ca$h in Key West, Florida

Ca$h in Key West, Florida

For more information about Vicky Collins visit http://teletrendstv.com.