On May 4, 2007, an enormous tornado nearly wiped Greensburg, Kansas, off the map. What happened next was almost a laboratory experiment in re-engineering the classic American small town.
Like the towns all around it, Greensburg was in decline before the storm. In a bid to survive, town leaders decided to go green in a big way. Ten years on, the ambitious effort says a lot about the headwinds facing many rural towns.
Out in western Kansas you get pretty used to tornadoes. But Farrell Allison says there was something weirdly ominous about the storm that barreled into Greensburg 10 years ago.
“I usually go outside and look. I didn’t even go outside,” recalls Allison. “I just had this knot in my stomach. And, for some reason, I thought it was going to be bad.”
The tornado was close to two miles wide. It was an EF5 with winds estimated at 205 mph.
“What you could hear was the wind coming, and you could hear the house being pulled apart,” Allison remembers.
The tornado killed 11 people, and it all but obliterated Greensburg.
“All the devastation that we had, and everything that we lost, you think of, well, what do I have left,” he says.
Built for a bygone era
Greensburg’s roadside attraction, the Big Well (dubbed “World’s Largest Hand Dug Well”), was about it.
Stacy Barnes, Greensburg’s tourism director, says the town grew up around this 32 foot wide, 109 foot deep well, dug 130 years ago to provide water for steam locomotives on the railroad.
“Every 10 miles they would need it for the steam engines. And if you drive down Highway 54 here, there’s a town every 10 miles,” says Barnes.
Towns out here were clearly built for a different era. Automation and consolidation decimated farming and industrial jobs in Greensburg. As opportunity waned, residents left.
Like pruning a rose bush
Tom Corns is a third-generation Greensburg banker. He calls the town’s catastrophe well-timed.
“The tornado actually was like pruning a rosebush,” says Corns from behind his desk at the SNJ Bank of Kansas, in Greensburg. “We were already on a downhill slide before the tornado, as was every small town. Since then, it’s a new town.”
Greensburg did have a clean slate, and it made a bold, almost desperate, bet. It doubled down on its future, rebuilding much better, and greener, than before. And for awhile, that seemed to work.
Greensburg’s pluck and vision spawned lots of media coverage, attracting thousands of volunteers. Even celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio got involved.
Greensburg’s chicken and egg problem
Now the whole town runs on wind power, and it's peppered with snazzy-looking, super high-efficiency buildings. The new houses are greener but, as Tom Corns points out, way pricier.
“This house here is for sale, as of today,” says Corns from the wheel of his Chevy sedan. “It’s a three bedroom, has a full basement. It's going to be priced in the area of $120,000, which is less than it took to build it.”
That’s typical in Greensburg. Houses here are not worth as much as they cost to build. Values remain low, because surrounding towns have plenty of old, empty houses for sale — cheap.
Since building in Greensburg tends, at least these days, to be a money-losing proposition, there isn’t a lot of building going on, or room for new residents. The town has a hard time attracting employers, because there’s no place for new employees to live. People aren’t building new places to live, because the town isn’t generating jobs. It’s cyclical.
Opting to start a business outside of Greensburg
And the relatively expensive real estate in Greensburg also makes it harder for Greensburg natives, like Tim Kyle, to start a business.
Kyle is currently trying to get a business he calls Ornery Brother Distillery off the ground. He’ll be making vodka from the cereal grain milo. But not in Greensburg.
“Because there weren’t any old buildings in Greensburg, and Kinsley was where I found a building that suited my needs,” explains Kyle.
In Kinsley, about 30 miles north of Greensburg, Kyle’s getting a cool old bank building, downtown, and rent-free, just for patching it up and using the place.
Greensburg tried to lure green industry. But the recession hit soon after the storm, and nothing’s panned out.
Officials say Greensburg is still 'primed for success'
And that leaves Mayor Bob Dixson in a bind. He’s got a million dollar field of dreams. With pavement, highway access, lights and utilities, a 72-acre business park, just waiting on the edge of town, sits empty.
“We’re standing on the southeast corner of the business park, 72 acres,” says Dixon proudly.
“I, we, did the best we could, with the knowledge we had available, with the situations that were there, at the time decisions were made,” says Dixson. “There were great ideas, great products, over 10 years here. And some of them, for whatever reason, didn’t work.”
Dixson is not giving up. He insists that Greensburg is primed for success. It is, after all, brand new, and environmentally sustainable. It’s got probably the best facilities of any little town on the high plains. What Greensburg doesn’t have, a decade after its brush with extinction, is a clear reason to grow.
Frank Morris is a national correspondent and senior editor at KCUR, a partner in the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman.