Struggling To Survive, A Small Town Banks On Energy Efficiency

May 4, 2017
Originally published on May 4, 2017 4:37 pm
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The town of Greensburg, Kan., was almost completely destroyed in 2007 when it was hit by an enormous tornado. What happened next was an ambitious experiment to re-engineer the classic American small town. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Out here in western Kansas, you get pretty used to tornadoes. But Ferrell Allison says there was something weirdly ominous about the storm that barreled into Greensburg 10 years ago tonight.

FERRELL ALLISON: I usually go outside and look. I didn't even go outside. I just had this knot in my stomach. And for some reason, I thought it was going to be bad.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I've got a monster, monster, wedge tornado. I'm about 4 to 5 miles south of Greensburg. The tornado has crossed Highway 183 definitely.

ALLISON: Well, what you could hear was the wind coming, and you could hear the house being pulled apart.

MORRIS: The tornado killed 11 people. It was close to 2 miles wide, one of the strongest on record. And it all but obliterated Greensburg.

ALLISON: All the devastation that we had and everything that we lost and everything - you think of, well, what do I have left?

MORRIS: Greensburg's roadside attraction, the largest hand-dug well, is about it.

STACY BARNS: We're in the big well in Greensburg.

MORRIS: Stacy Barns, Greensburg's tourism director, says the town grew up around this well dug 130 years ago to provide water for steam locomotives on the railroad.

BARNS: Every 10 miles, they would need it for the steam engine. So a lot of - like, if you traveled down Highway 54 here, there's a town every 10 miles.

MORRIS: Towns out here were clearly built for a different era. Automation and consolidation have decimated farming and industrial jobs. As opportunity waned, residents left. Tom Corns is a third-generation Greensburg banker. He calls the town's catastrophe well-timed.

TOM CORNS: The tornado actually was like pruning a rose bush. We were on a downhill slide before the tornado, as was every small town. Since then, it's a new town.

MORRIS: 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 a while, that seemed to work. Greensburg's pluck spawned lots of media coverage, attracting thousands of volunteers. Even celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio got involved. 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.

CORNS: This house here is for sale as of today. 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 what the - it took to build it.

MORRIS: And you could say the same about all the new houses in Greensburg. They're not worth as much as they cost to build. Values here remain low because surrounding towns have plenty of old, empty houses for sale cheap. With about 800 residents, Greensburg's considerably smaller than it was before the tornado, and that leaves Mayor Bob Dixon in a bind. He's got a million dollar field of dreams - pavement, highway access, lights and utilities - just waiting on the edge of town.

BOB DIXON: We're standing on the southeast corner of the business park - 72 acres.

MORRIS: I don't see anything happening out here.

DIXON: And no there has not. That's the reality of it. We don't have anything happening.

MORRIS: Dixon insists that Greensburg is primed for success. It is, after all, brand new and built to high environmental standards. What Greensburg doesn't have a decade after its brush with extinction is a clear reason to grow. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Greensburg, Kan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.