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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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March Madness

I’m a fair weather fan.  I admit it.  I don’t follow a team or watch ESPN or read the agate or particularly care about the drama in sports.  When a team goes down I shrug and get on with my life.  I can’t understand why people get depressed or beat their wives.  It’s a game.  Hello!  I skim over the sports pages and stop to read stories of personal triumph and tragedy and bad behavior but that’s about it.  Ask me how someone played or what the score was and my eyes glaze over.  I watch the Super Bowl for the commercials.  My sports rabid husband and son think I’m a moron.  I am really only a fan of my son’s high school basketball and lacrosse teams and that’s where you’ll find me in the stands.  To get me fired up about college or professional sports it has to be down to the wire.  And that’s why I love March Madness.  Not because I particularly care about any of the teams, or am knowledgeable about the players and coaches, but because I love a good showdown where a team’s entire season hinges on one game.  I love that there are upsets and storybook endings featuring Cinderella and David and Goliath.  The fact that it can go either way on any day and that a lower ranked team can prevail over a powerhouse in a nail biting finish is absolutely the coolest thing in sports.  To endure to the Final Four and win the NCAA title takes talent and endurance and luck.  And it played out beautifully again on Saturday when Northern Iowa (who?) sent the mighty Kansas Jayhawks home in the biggest upset so far in the tournament.  I picked the game up in the second half and saw Northern Iowa ahead.  This might be a game worth watching.  I had it on in the background while I read a book.  I kept looking up as the clock ticked down.  There’s no way.  By the end of the game I was standing up two feet from the television hooting and hollering.  The underdog beats the big dog.  Panthers Rock SHOCK Jayhawks.  Whatever happens from here the scrappy team will be remembered for toppling #1 seed Kansas in one of the greatest upsets in NCAA Tournament history.  It’s a storybook ending.  I’m cheering for Northern Iowa now.  Almost makes me a fan. 

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On The Shoulders of Giants

Vicky Collins and Larry Hatteberg

In the room were the legends of photojournalism.  Darrell Barton, Larry Hatteberg and the memory of Bob Brandon.  There were also hundreds of others who had been influenced and inspired by the man we gathered to remember.  I did not know Bob Brandon.  I worked with him only once.  When he died in December 2009 I was struck by the outpouring of accolades for him.  I had no idea he was so inconic and respected.  I went to his memorial service to learn more about this master storyteller.

They say a man is known by the company he keeps and among Bob Brandon’s closest friends is a man who, more than any other, has influenced the storyteller I am today.  I met Larry Hatteberg when I came to Wichita, Kansas in 1981 to be a news producer at KAKE TV.  Prior to that I was a production assistant at KRON TV in San Francisco.  Part of my job description was to make coffee.  I had never produced a show.  I was as green as could be.  At one point Larry told me I reminded him of Jane in “Broadcast News.” 

I made so many mistakes in my early days as a producer but one of the smartest moves of my career was to study how Larry Hatteberg crafted stories.  Larry taught me to write to pictures and natural sound.  He showed me how to be intimate with subjects and respect them.  Even if he was interviewing a dirt poor farmer for “Hatteberg’s People” he never condescended and always listened carefully to what they had to say.  Every person he met could inspire and teach us how to live a better life.  And when he edited he laid the pictures and sound down first then added the words to finish the piece.  Larry did this in a two minute story or a documentary.  Pictures always led.

The enduring legacy of Larry Hatteberg, Bob Brandon and Darrell Barton is they set the standard for television storytellers and continue to raise others up to be the best they can be.  They teach and inspire and the room today was full of their students.  While we all socialized, Ben McCoy, one of the finest photojournalists I know, came up to Larry to shake his hand.  We all stand on the shoulders of giants.  I’ll never know what Larry Hatteberg saw in a scrub like me.  Maybe he recognized talent that I didn’t see myself.  I will forever be grateful that he let me hover over his shoulder and watch him work.  He continues to be one of my greatest mentors and today I finally told him so.

For more information on Vicky Collins visit


The Faith Club Part 4

Over the course of reading the book “The Faith Club” many things resonated with me but one statement from Ranya, the Muslim woman, sums things up.  “Once you can see things from both sides you’re on the side of compassion and humanity.”  Another thing that impressed me was a bit of wisdom from my friend, Cheryl, during a walk last weekend.  “Don’t judge a religion by the people who practice it.”  How simple, yet how profound, these statements are.  Cheryl’s remarks reminded me why I strayed from religion in the first place and Ranya’s thoughts reminded me why I came back.

As a high school student, attending Episcopal School and singing in a Catholic choir I often asked myself if there was room in Christianity for a more open minded view.  Surely there was more than one path to God.  I struggled with the notion of a God who condemns those who don’t accept him or causes good people to suffer.  I recall when I was producing television at KAKE TV in Wichita, Kansas, we had a family with many children appear one day on our noon talk show.  There was love and joy all around.  A short time later we were shocked to learn that a fire had swept through their home and taken the lives of several of their children.  One of my colleagues remarked that God must have been punishing them.  I shut her out.  God reveals himself in many ways but he doesn’t kill babies.  I’ll never believe in a God of vengeance.  To me that notion belongs to fundamentalists and extremists who monopolize the dialogue and make the possibility of understanding impossible. 

But by closing my mind at that moment wasn’t I disrespectful of her ideas, however farfetched?  Could we have possibly understood each other better if we had dialogued on the subject rather than agreed to disagree?  That’s what is so impressive about the women in “The Faith Club.”  Over time they realized that there were more things that united them than divided them.  They were able to embrace the faiths of each other, put it out on the table and recognize a God of all humanity.  Suzanne, the Christian woman, described religion like college degrees.  “One person might earn a BA in literature while another earns one in history.  They’re equally educated, though differently educated.  The real test is how they apply that knowledge in their lives.”  I’ve finished reading “The Faith Club” and as I come to the end of this high holiday journey of faith I’m committed to going out in the new year with my mind more open.  There are connections and contradictions in all faiths and I must not only listen but also hear.

And I must remember that if I am open, God shows up in the most unexpected places.  The truth doesn’t only reveal itself in church or temple but sometimes under the stars at night.  During my high school years I sang in a choir called Na Kani Pela which performed every Sunday at Our Lady of Peace Cathedral in downtown Honolulu.  During the summer before I went to college we went to Makawao, Maui for a concert.  It was one of the last times we would all be together as a group and as we had done so many times before, we sang.  The song that night was a Latin hymn called “O Magnum Mysterium.”  As we began our harmonies a silver rainbow appeared in the sky and when we finished it slowly faded away.  It was quite miraculous.  I will always believe God was there that night reminding me to recognize the beauty in all faiths and remember the universal truths that connect us to one another and our humanity.

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Wrong Answer to Abortion

When I produced the daily talk show, Kaleidoscope, at KAKE TV in Wichita, Kansas, I learned you could discuss just about any issue but abortion.  It was too polarizing.  People would talk until they were blue in the face, raise their voices and get angry but neither side would budge from their position.  No matter how compelling the arguments for or against, those who were pro-life and pro-choice just dug their heels in deeper.   It was an argument that couldn’t be won.  That was nearly 20 years ago.

Unfortunately we’re still not talking about abortion.  Instead radicals like Scott Roeder pick up guns and shoot people like Dr. George Tiller of Wichita, Kansas in church.  I am shocked by the hypocrisy of those who say they are pro-life but will kill someone and feel they are doing God’s work.  No matter how you feel about abortion or the work Dr. Tiller did, there is never any excuse for violence or vigilantes.  It is terrorism.  Even pro-life groups are ashamed and outraged by today’s violence. 

President Obama has his work cut out for him as he tries to bring some civility to this divisive issue.  During his recent speech during commencement at Notre Dame University he said “the question, then, is how do we work through these conflicts?  Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort?  As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?”  Can we get there by talking?  I’m not sure but at least Notre Dame had the courage to take on a controversial subject.  We need to dialogue.  Terrorists forcing the abortion debate is the wrong answer.