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Tornado-struck Kansas town rebuilds green

A year after a tornado stuck Greensburg, Alan Hewitt and other residents are rebuilding the town to environmentally-sustainable building standards.

By James GerstenzangLos Angeles Times / May 6, 2008



Greensburg, Kan.

Alvin Hewitt was the first baby born at Kiowa County Memorial Hospital after it opened in 1950.

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Today, the hospital is gone. So are the red brick high school, the single-screen movie theater, the soda shop, City Hall, the county courthouse. Like 95 percent of this little town on the prairies of southwest Kansas, they were destroyed by a tornado that struck a year ago Sunday.

Mr. Hewitt could have taken his insurance check and moved away, as about half the town's residents did. He didn't.

On the first anniversary of the storm, President Bush returned to Greensburg to celebrate its "year-long journey from tragedy to triumph" as exemplified by the stubborn determination of a town full of Alvin Hewitts: hundreds of people who refused to simply salvage what they could and then drive away from the rubble.

By the estimate of state Democratic House leader Dennis McKinney, at least half of the 1,400 residents remained. They are rebuilding the town, turning the town green – figuratively and literally.

The town, founded in 1886 and named for a 19th-century stagecoach driver, D.R. "Cannonball" Green, is rising again, built this time with a raft of energy-saving measures incorporated in the designs. Wind turbines and solar panels are contributing power. Native grasses are being planted to reduce the need for water.

The goal is to rebuild every public structure to the highest standards of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification program. If successful, Greensburg will be the first US town to achieve the "platinum" level in the building industry program.

A quick ride through Greensburg suggests the distance it still has to travel. Entire city blocks are barren but for an occasional elm. The schools are a collection of double-wide trailers used as classrooms. Where the theater stood, there's a jumble of bricks. But a few blocks beyond, single-story townhouses are taking shape.

School and church define much of the life here. Before the tornado leveled all but one of the 11 churches, rush hour was Sunday morning. With its own power plant, hospital, John Deere and GM dealerships, Greensburg was largely self-sufficient. But when a tornado with winds of 200 m.p.h. struck on May 4, 2007, it took only 10 minutes to level the 1-1/2-square-mile town, the National Weather Service estimated.

"I was leery about building back. It was so devastating. There was so much cleanup. There was just no hope of getting things back to normal," Mr. Hewitt said. But, he recalled, his son, Steve, the town administrator, "said this is a total opportunity for us to start over."

And so Hewitt used his insurance settlement to replace his destroyed two-story home with a one-story house with extra insulation in the walls, windows built to resist the prairie winds, and heating pipes using recycled water and built into the foundation's concrete to keep the basement warm.

"There's a sense we can make good things happen," said wheat farmer Dennis McKinney. After the storm, when asked by outsiders whether the town would rebuild, he says, "We'd pause, because we never thought of that question. It was a given. This is our home."

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