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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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Oil Spill: The Ripple Effect

I finally got to the Gulf coast to work on a story about the oil spill for the PBS Newshour. I didn’t see any oil but what I saw was a a boat load of fear. Correspondent Tom Bearden and I visited Bayou La Batre, Alabama to attend a town hall meeting with Ken Feinberg, the Massachusetts lawyer who must decide how to allocate BP’s 20 billion dollar compensation fund. He has done this kind of work previously for victims of 9/11 and Virginia Tech.  Feinberg was mostly reassuring people that help was on the way and was listening to the concerns among the folks who packed city hall at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning. What struck me was how far reaching this catastrophe is on the people who live in towns that dot the Gulf coast. Bayou La Batre bills itself as the “Seafood Capital of Alabama.”  The oil spill has rippled through the whole community disrupting the entire seafood chain.  Obviously the fishermen have lost the season, then there are the people who store and process the seafood like brothers Bruce and Delane Seaman who had to shut down their oyster shucking plant putting about 40 people out of work.  They don’t expect to ever reopen.  Their customers have gone elsewhere.  Then there are folks like Patrick and Lillie Kraver who own Kraver’s restaurant in Daphne, on the other side of Mobile Bay, that sells the seafood and have seen business tumble by about 40%.  When Tom asked them if they could survive they said “God would provide.”  These are people whose families have worked in the seafood industry for generations.  And then there are the more indirect losses. The man who has a candy and gift store on the beach and has seen his tourist traffic dry up, another man who has watched his real estate property values tank, even the local minister who has seen his offerings cut almost in half. He reminded Ken Feinberg that when everyone leaves the area it will be the churches and faith based organizations that care for fragile residents.  People came from as far away as Pensacola, Florida.  Everyone had a story of loss and hardship and a sense of skepticism deep as the Gulf about whether help was really coming or whether this was more PR.  Most have felt jerked around by British Petroleum and are hoping Ken Feinberg is really here to help make them at least partially whole.  He says he has received claims from 48 states so he has a huge task trying to decide who will be eligible to receive money and who doesn’t qualify.  Unlike a hurricane which comes and goes this catastrophe and its impacts could crush the community for years and everyone needs help to weather the storm and stay afloat.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec10/compensation_07-27.html

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.