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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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Art’s Heart

As a journalist I find covering natural disasters to be amazing and inspiring. So many stories are revealed amidst the staggering force of earthquakes, floods, tornados, hurricanes and wildfires. Even more awesome to witness is the force of the human spirit during such calamities. Natural disasters always bring out the best in people and communities. Despite devastation and personal tragedies, people rush to the aid of their neighbors. And so I want to thank Art Paterson, who lost the daycare center he and his family built, during the recent Windsor, Colorado tornado. He was a grateful man. All 130 of the children at the Windmill Child Enrichment Center got out safely when the tornado cut a swath through the town. It’s hard to believe when you see the destroyed building and the mangled playground.

Windmill Child Enrichment Center destroyed during Windsor, Colorado tornado.

Despite his loss he gave this journalist a few gallons of gas. In my rush to get on location I passed up opportunities to fill up and found myself precariously low on fuel. You can work without sleep, even without food and a shower, but you cannot do your job without gas in your car. It was the kind of generosity you see during catastrophes. Despite his loss, Art’s heart was huge and he saved the day for this journalist. He wouldn’t even let me pay him, so Art, please accept my gratitude and best wishes as you and your community recovers.

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