Tornado: 1.7 miles wide. Town of Greensburg, Kan.: 2 miles wide. Apparent winner: the weather.
On May 4, 2007, a tornado struck Greensburg, killing 11 people and turning the town to rubble.
But Greensburg triumphed in the end, thanks to a new beginning.
Residents of the rural agricultural town immediately began to recover and rebuild—bigger, better and greener than pre-tornado.
Greensburg has become an international model for post-disaster resilience and eco-minded living, lauded by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the United Nations and other organizations, and profiled on a Discovery Channel TV series produced by actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
Greensburg’s mayor, Bob Dixson, whose own home was destroyed in the tornado (and then rebuilt), will be the keynote speaker at the third annual Economic Summit in Sun Valley. A retired postmaster before being elected mayor a year after the disaster, Dixson is a down-to-earth, friendly, intelligent booster of Greensburg. At the Economic Summit, he’ll talk about subjects he and Greensburg residents know well: resiliency and sustainability.
Greensburg, a poster community for environmentally friendly building practices, has the most LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings per capita in the U.S. Its energy is 100 percent renewable, with the wind that destroyed the town now providing most of its power. Other sustainable building practices include solar panels, natural ventilation, LED streetlights, geothermal heat, native vegetation and drip irrigation (and that’s a short list). These practices are saving the town, its residents and businesses money while creating an overall sense of well-being.
Resiliency and sustainability, far from being feel-good buzzwords, are complex and intertwined, Dixson said.
“Resiliency is basically stick-to-it-iveness,” he said. “You also need the ability to endure as a community. There are resilient communities all over, but are they doing all they can to be truly sustainable? You can’t have one without the other.”
Communities don’t need a natural disaster like a tornado or fire to make profound changes, Dixson said.
“Every community in the U.S. is going through a disaster of some kind, whether aging infrastructure, a bad economy, budget problems or crime,” he said. “The key is: Do both citizens and elected officials want to deal with it? Do they have a vision?”
Long-term vision, he said, is key.
“We started within a few weeks talking about a long-term recovery plan and a strategic economic development plan so we could leave our community to future generations.”
Communities must set aside partisan politics and hostile attitudes about “business vs. public” interests, Dixson said.
“We were raised on two principles on the high plains,” he said. “First, take care of the land, and it will take care of you. Second, always leave it better than you find it. Those ideas and values transcend politics.”