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Greensburg, Kansas Recovers From Twister Only To Face An Economic EF5

Frank Morris

A massive EF5 tornado all but obliterated Greensburg, Kan., on May 4, 2007. Afterwards, city leaders saw a blank slate, a chance to reverse decades of decline by building a town for the future.

Greensburg’s green building initiative, drew big money, and lots of volunteer help. But now Greensburg faces a crossroads. The town is stuck at half its pre-tornado population with few prospects for growth. Some blame trends slowly decimating most farm towns, others find fault with the green initiative.    

Greensburg dreams big

Greensburg was losing population fast before the tornado, but hours after a nearly mile wide twister shredded Greensburg and its schools, superintend Darin Headrick stood in the rubble, under black clouds, promising rebirth.

“Towns are about people, they’re not about buildings,” said Headrick, the day after the tornado. “And as long as the people are willing to stay, the way of life stays.”

Fast forward seven years and natural sunlight bathes Headrick inside Greensburg’s beautiful, high-tech public school.

Credit Frank Morris / KCUR
Kiowa County Schools Superintendent Darin Headrick loves his office in Greensburg’s new high-tech, and environmentally sustainable school.

“I do think this building is doing what it’s supposed to,” says Headrick sitting in his sunny office. “It does allow us to attract people, and attract staff.” 

The building uses about one quarter the energy a typical school does, part of a very ambitious “green” rebuilding program here led by people like Ruth Ann Wedel, with non-profit Greensburg Greentown.

“We said ‘build it and they will come," says Wedel. “We saw it as an opportunity to recreate ourselves.  So, it was exciting to dream big.”

And it made a terrific story. National media covered Greensburg extensively. A reality TV show ran two seasons on the Discovery Channel. Architects and volunteer workers swept in, fueled by at least $75 million from tax payers and insurance companies. They put up striking, super-efficient buildings, like the Kiowa County Commons, where Grant Neuhold runs the bright, airy, expansive media center.

I asked Neuhold why Greensburg needs a media center. “Well that’s a very good question,” he replied. “We’ve been asked that before, and it’s more like, ‘why not?’” 

Nuehold isn’t bothered by the many well lit but empty cubicles in this beautiful facility.  Greensburg, he says, is a town built for the future. 

“We had a lot of opportunities to do something different, when there was money available for the rebuild, and ways to set our set ourselves apart from just your average, ordinary Kansas town that is along Highway 54,” says Nuehold.

Now, Greensburg’s a patchwork of houses, placed around bleak vacant lots, and more than a dozen very modern, super-efficient buildings. Daniel Wallach, founder of Greensburg Green town, says it’s the highest concentration of LEED Platinum buildings in the country.

“Quite remarkable,” says Wallach. “But frankly since that first year, not much has happened.”   

The city has launched no new new green city initiatives, according to Wallach. The tornado money is long gone, and the population is stuck at about 800, right where it was just after the disaster.

“The town is struggling,” says Wallach. “There’s a lot of fear and concern in town, that it may not be sustainable as a community. Ghost town. And some people in town are blaming the green initiative itself, which, is crazy.”

The time of backlash

At the Bar H Tavern, a low-slung red building spared by the tornado, a few customers grouse loudly about the town’s green focus. These men claim they were cut out of the process, that they didn’t see a dime of the millions spent. They say the whole thing was crazy expensive, and silly, some rich outsider’s utopian vision, nothing to do with a hard-working Kansas farm town. You can’t even drive a loaded grain truck down Main Street, they complain. Though you can get a good cup of coffee.                     

Just off the highway in downtown Greensburg, Tim Kyle runs the Green Bean coffee shop with his wife.  

“Well, obviously there would have been mistakes made,” observes Kyle. “There’s no blueprint, there’s no book to follow, there’s no check list to go on, your entire town got completely wiped off the face of the map,” he says.

Slinging coffee is no dream job for Kyle. He’s in sales, and moved back after the storm, expecting a good paying job to open up for him here by now. He understands the general frustration bubbling in Greensburg.

“Understand that this is the time of backlash, were everybody wants to jump up and hoot and holler and scream that everybody did it wrong,” he says.

But Kyle, for his part, is backing the green initiative. Take it away, he says, and there’s nothing to distinguish Greensburg from hundreds of other little towns, withering on high plains.   

“If you don’t have something to town yourself apart from any other town in western Kansas, or any other rural town in all of America for that matter, if you don’t have that, you’re just one of everybody else,” says Kyle. “And there’s too many of them to think that you can compete for anything worthwhile.”

The housing problem

 Over in the Greensburg State Bank, the guy sitting behind the president’s desk, Tom Corns, a third generation Greensburg banker, agrees with Kyle, but says green isn’t enough.

“We haven’t built any new houses for about a year,” says Corns. “What we need are some more jobs, actually, to bring people to town.”

Greensburg faces a chicken and egg problem. Unemployment is virtually zero, so if a company wanted to move in, it would need to bring workers along. But, there’s no place for them to live. Almost all the new, energy efficient houses here are full, or too expensive. No one is going to build housing here for a non-existent market. Corns says an old fashioned trailer park would do Greensburg a lot of good.

“We need to have blue collar housing. Housing for people who can’t afford a $150,000 house,” says Corns. “We need some cheaper housing. That would help us a lot.”

Greensburg also needs a growing economy, one that can nurture the dreams of recent transplants like Fred Weir.

“I wanted to build an industry, a maw paw industry,” says Weir.

Weir bolted back to Greensburg, his home town, three months after the tornado. He coordinated hundreds of volunteers building new houses for tornado victims. He built one for his own family, too and a shop for his budding construction business, but the $42-an-hour work Weir was accustomed to has since dried up here.

“So I took a $12-an-hour job, or less, at the county maintaining the buildings,” says Weir. “I’m happy as can be, but I’m not able to pay for my house. Well, glory be to God, we’re going to move on, and hopefully sell house, pay off the debts and rent in town.”

Greensburg rolls out the red carpet

Credit Frank Morris / KCUR

Weir faces foreclosure if he can’t sell his property.   Hope for a sale sprawls on the edge of town where a sleek, modern sign proclaims Greensburg’s Industrial Park.

“To let folks know it’s here,” says Greensburg City Manager Ed Truelove. “Otherwise they drive by and say, ‘what a large field,'” jokes Truelove.

But he’s not really joking. The industrial park is vast and empty, save for a high voltage line crew set up temporarily.

Truelove says it’s tough getting companies to take a second look at Greensburg. The town is hours from a sizable market, a large workforce, or a transportation hub. Truelove hopes to land a little oil drilling company, or ag-related factory, but he says the type of business suited for this area may fear red tape in Greensburg.

“We’ll have companies that choose not to even call Greensburg, because we’re green,” says Truelove. “So we need to just focus on the economy itself, rather than just being green and sustainable."

High Plains towns face 'an economic F5'

Towns out on the high plains face brutal head winds. The land used to be populated with big families running small farms. Most of the goods and services for all those country folk came from closely spaced little towns. Now, farms out here are enormous, the families are small, and hundreds of towns like Greensburg grope for reason to exist.   

“And in that regard we’re no different than any small town in Kansas who’s faced the same dealing populations, the children graduating high school, going off to college, and not coming back,” asserts Truelove.

“Personally, I think it’s a cop out,” says Daniel Wallach.    

“The level of investment that has been made into that community, and just once again the brand awareness, that is there, has tremendous value,” Wallach says.

But Wallach is frustrated with Greensburg. He says he can’t get city government to budge on small stuff, like its strict bans on backyard chickens, wildflowers and uncut grass. He’s close to folding Greensburg Greentown, for lack of progress, or funding.  

Meantime Superintendent Headrick maintains the same stance he did just after the storm, counseling patience and perseverance.

“When the tornado happened we were around 100 years old, we’re seven years old now just about,” notes Headrick. “What do we need? We need time. You grow communities a family at a time, you grow them a job at a time."

Greensburg will soon celebrate the grand opening of new movie theater. That’s a big deal in a town of 800. Folks are excited and proud. But when the party’s over Greensburg will face the same harsh challenge it has for years, trying to scratch out an existence, green or otherwise, on the high plains of Kansas. 

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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