Greensburg Step up to the rooftop garden of the Silo Eco-Home and look north. See how much Greensburg has changed in the three years since it was nearly wiped clean by an EF-5 tornado.
Look west and you will see the state-of-the-art hospital. It is loaded with cutting-edge green features, such as a wind turbine, gray water recycling, heat- recovery systems and a concrete-reinforced conference room with a three-day supply of food and water.
Look to the southeast and you will see the dramatic passive-solar rooflines of the school that soon will educate children from all of Kiowa County.
What you will not see, however, are trees. Most of Greensburg’s trees were hauled away after the storm. Around town, barren zombie trees jut from the ground at ghoulish angles, a reminder of what Greensburg lost on May 4, 2007, and what it cannot readily replace.
Thirteen people died that night. Five hundred people — more than a third of the town’s population — moved away afterward.
“We’re a very tender community emotionally right now,” said Mayor Bob Dixson. “We’ve been running on adrenaline for three years, and now our emotions are catching up with us. Our loss has been internalized for three years, and it hasn’t spilled out because we’ve been uplifting each other by being busy.
“We had a cause. Now we are back to so-called normalcy.”
Building up business
Architects, politicians, eco-vangelists, actors, cable network producers — a lot of people came to Greensburg after the storm, bringing their wild ideas for transforming the town. You see their handiwork in the town’s modern, ultra-green business incubator, which was built with
$1 million donated by Frito-Lay’s Sun Chips brand and $400,000 from actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who was involved in the Planet Green TV series “Greensburg.”
Across Main Street from the incubator is a nondescript, L-shaped brick mall known as Kiowa County United. It also was the result of some audacious thinking, but it was homegrown.
Kiowa County United came about one night in October 2008, when Susan Brown found her husband, Scott, punching buttons on a calculator.
The Browns live in Mullinville, 10 miles west of Greensburg, but Scott Brown is a pillar of Greensburg’s business community. His father founded an auction house in 1940, and Scott Brown moved it to Greensburg’s east edge. The building was just out of the tornado’s path, and Brown shared it with people whose businesses were wiped out by the storm.
Eighteen months later, prospects for rebuilding Main Street remained grim. The incubator, when it opened, would have only five tiny storefronts.
Brown told his wife, “I’m going to sell shares for $5,000. I’ll be upfront with people: ‘You’ll never see your money back. You will never get a penny of interest, but you’ll get businesses on Main Street.’”
That night, the Browns put in the first $50,000. By Christmas, 85 local donors had increased the total to $1 million. They got a tax deduction and the right to buy greeting cards in Greensburg.
Trouble runs deep
Recently, much of the struggle has centered on the town’s major attraction, The World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well, a 109-foot-deep engineering wonder known simply as the Big Well.
Before the storm, the Big Well attracted thousands of visitors to Greensburg. Three years into the recovery, a Big Well museum is still on the drawing board, and the locals aren’t happy about it.
The budget and design process has dragged on for months largely because of the project’s cost: $3 million for a 6,500-square-foot museum.
At a public meeting, residents asked whether just once, the city could forgo the green features on the building.
“Sustainability had little to no impact on the cost of the museum,” replied Stephen Hardy, director of planning from the Kansas City-based architecture firm BNIM and one of the authors of Greensburg’s master plan. “That’s not where the markup in this building is coming from. It’s completely from the remoteness of the site.”
What drives up the cost of the Big Well, and everything else built in town, is the fact that construction crews must be paid to live in Greensburg until their work is done.
Greensburg has changed its story about the future. Yes, people quarrel about the way forward, but that in itself is a psychological shift from before the storm.
“There’s a sense in the whole county that we need to keep focused and keep working at it,” said Dennis McKinney, a former state representative from Greensburg who is now the state treasurer.
“A certain amount of conflict is inevitable, but I am more positive than I was four years ago that we can re-create new businesses, that we will have one great high school,” he said. “We have an opportunity to achieve something great.”