No-one had even heard of the small town of Greensburg until it was devastated by one of the worst tornadoes ever to hit America. Decades-old brick and wood buildings splintered in the winds, and dump trucks hauled out more than 400,000 cubic yards of debris.
But the little Kansas community is about to become the world capital of green – thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio who has been filming in the town for a documentary that has in turn attracted some leading firms to lend their support. Now Greensburg is being rebuilt as the first entirely environmentally friendly community in the US.
As filming started last week, the entire area resembled a bomb site. More than half of the population (originally 1400) are still refugees in neighboring towns as they await the rebuilding or repair of their homes.
The hospital was flattened, along with the rest of the buildings, and the sick and injured are now cared for in a MASH unit field hospital donated by the military, while the town government and courts are run from temporary trailers.
In the once-populous main street, the only shop open is a new gas station that acts as the local meeting place, cafe, grocery store and deli. Most of the remaining locals now live in huge temporary FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers awaiting new homes.
It was the wind blew the town down, and now it may play a critical role in its rebirth.
A hallmark of the sustainability plan is a compact grid of streets with a variety of housing types above or near downtown shops. Hardy and other planners are also exploring ways to capture the hardscrabble prairie’s stormwater runoff for landscaping and wind for electricity.
Greensburg gets 22 inches of rain a year but plenty of wind — something not lost on residents.
“The city is sitting on an excellent wind site,” said one official. “We’re trying to figure out a way to capture that resource, maybe an industrial wind farm near town or small turbines throughout town.”
Indeed, Greensburg officials hope to create a paragon of sustainable design, after a May 4 tornado flattened more than 90 percent of their town.
BNIM Architects of Kansas City, Mo., worked with town officials to develop a master plan to rebuild Greensburg, which had a population of about 1,400 before the storm.
“What we’re hearing from people is that they don’t want architecture that reflects the turn of the last century, but buildings that reflect this century,” said Stephen Hardy, a BNIM associate, who is spearheading the redevelopment plan. “Greensburg, like much of the rest of rural farm America, was headed on a long path of decline before the tornado, so residents want to rebuild the right way.”
Redevelopment is already taking shape. Greensburg officials issued 664 building permits through December and plan to break ground this month on a 9,200-square-foot business incubator building.
Recently, Torsten Energy LLC, of Wright, announced it will construct a biodiesel plant in an industrial park on the southern edge of Greensburg, the Associated Press reported. The plant will employ from 20 to 25 people. USDA Rural Development is joining ranks with the United Way of the Plains and Mennonite Housing Rehabilitation Services in a $400,000 housing program to construct from 20 to 30 affordable single-family homes for residents returning to Greensburg.
USDA Rural Development low-interest loans will be used to provide financing for the homes’ mortgages.
Habitat for Humanity also is expected to build 20 homes in the community, the mayor said.
City Administrator Steve Hewlett, who is co-ordinating the recovery and rebuilding efforts, said: “I want it to be that in ten years time, people will be sitting at home or in a diner somewhere and might read about what we’ve done, and say ‘That little town Greensburg, they did things right’.”
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