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Community Becomes 'Living Laboratory' After Tornado Decimates Town

May 06, 2014; 3:55 PM

At 9:50 p.m. on May 4, 2007, a 1.7-mile-wide F5 tornado perfectly aligned with the 1.7-mile-wide town of Greensburg, Kansas. Four minutes later, the winds hit their peak as the devastating storm tore through the town. Mike Smith, senior vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, was working from Wichita to issue tornado warnings the night that Greensburg was torn apart.

A view of Greensburg after two days of debris removal following the tornado. Photo courtesy of NWS.

According to Smith, many rare circumstances surrounded the formation of the tornado, which was created so rapidly it was not captured on radar. Wind shear was recorded at 260 miles per hour, the highest ever recorded by the Weather Surveillance Radar system WSR-88Ds. It is also rare for such a storm to form at night, but it was spawned off a dry line, and the atmosphere was primed for a large and violent tornado.

Radar image from the night of the Greensburg tornado.

"There was a weak short wave over eastern Colorado," he said. "As it approached western Kansas, thunderstorms exploded on what had been the dry line."

He also detailed the accounts of his experience and the developments of the storm is his book, Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather. In it he describes the experiences of people in the town as the tornado came bearing down. Residents described feeling pain in their ears as barometric pressure plunged "in a free fall." He writes:

"The rain and wind ceased. The air felt 'freaky,' to use one resident's expression. Then, suddenly, houses and buildings began flying apart."

That night, 95 percent of the town was destroyed. Most of the buildings were gone, and the ones that remained took on heavy damage. Thanks to advanced warnings, death and injury tolls were kept relatively low. Compared to the Udall tornado of 1955, when a comparable-sized town was hit by an F5 tornado that also left 95 percent of its buildings destroyed, Greensburg had one-fourteenth the casualty rate. The town tornado siren, usually run for only five minutes to prevent an energy drain that would cost thousands to repair, played until it was destroyed. The work of storm chasers and advanced technology helped save hundreds of lives that night.

When the sun rose the next day, the town of Greensburg first saw the devastation that had occurred. The extent of the damage left many wondering how, and even if, they could rebuild.

Piles of rubble that were once homes and buildings left obliterated by the tornado. Photo by Larry Schwan.

Daniel Wallach, executive director and co-founder of the non-profit Greensburg GreenTown, lived just outside of town. When he saw what happened to his friends in Greensburg, he and his wife, Catherine Hart, were immediately drawn to help. They came up with an idea to help the town reinvent itself as they rebuilt. With a name like Greensburg, Wallach thought that creating a town with cutting-edge energy efficiency and sustainable "green" technology would be a good way to help attract attention, which would then spawn more assistance.

"As terrible as it was, it created an opportunity. It provided a clean slate," Wallach said.

A week after the storm, a town hall meeting was held in a tent set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Wallach and Hart arrived with a concept plan for a model green community. There they learned that the governor's office, as well as the mayor, also had ideas to rebuild the town greener.

With cooperative efforts from the townspeople, corporate sponsors, individual donations and government at the both the federal and state levels, Greensburg now has 28 sustainable buildings. Eight of these are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certified, five at platinum level, the highest level of efficiency. Home owners had no goals or restrictions placed on them for how they would rebuild, but many still committed to plans of sustainability. Over half of the 300 rebuilt homes achieved energy efficiency ratings 40 percent above code standards. Wallach stated that the majority of the community participated in the projects however they could.

"It encouraged people to be part of this bigger vision," Wallach said. "Anytime you can make something beautiful out of something terrible, it redeems it in a way. It gives people a meaning and a purpose to come back stronger."

Before the tornado, 1,400 people populated Greensburg. Nine lives were lost in the disaster. In the aftermath, 700 people stayed. Today there are about 800 people living in the town that Wallach calls "a living laboratory."

Before the tornado, one of Greensburg's most popular tourist attractions was the world's largest hand-dug well. This photo of the replacement museum is one Mike Smith describes as "the history of the town, the well and the tornado" and "one of the best museums I have ever seen." Photo by Mike Smith.

The town now hosts a wind farm, buildings with cutting-edge energy technology and sites for people to visit to learn about sustainability. Among them is the Silo-Eco Home bed and breakfast. This eco-home, the demonstration home for the series of energy-efficient buildings in the town, also functions as the visitors center and the starting point of the Greensburg GreenTown tour. Some of its features include recycled glass countertops, energy-efficient appliances, windows placed to provide maximum natural lighting and a rooftop garden.

Along with the eco-tourist destination bed and breakfast, Greensburg GreenTown also boast an LEED certified bank, courthouse, hospital, school and business park incubator. The town also encourages community participation to complete maintenance projects in a quick, cost-effective and eco-friendly way. Recently Greensburg GreenTown had a bounty project for community members to collect problem weeds and turn them in for prizes, some donated by local businesses.

"It's like an Old West community," Wallach said. "People come together to collectively meet the challenge. After a disaster it takes people coming together and pursuing a vision for healing and meeting the challenges set before them."

A photo taken of Greensburg from the grain elevator in 2011. Photo by Steven Zumwalt, FEMA.

After coming together for their own challenges, GreenTown now has offsite offices to expand these programs to other disaster-stricken areas. An eco-friendly bed and breakfast is in the works for Joplin, Mo., following the devastating tornado outbreak that ripped the area apart in 2011. They have also created a handbook for sustainable disaster recovery that can walk a community through each step of the rebuilding process in a way that will be the most efficient and cost effective.

Wallach believes that commitment to sustainability is a matter of awareness in tune with people's own values, rather than being a political ideology. He sites the cost benefits of being more self-sustaining as energy prices increase, and staying mindful of how what people put out can affect others. When it comes to polluting air and water supplies, Wallach emphasizes "don't leave messes for other people to clean up."

As for the next steps for Greensburg GreenTown, Wallach says the focus will be staying on the cutting edge of energy-efficient technology.

"Time will tell how much support there will be for these ideas," he said.

For more information on Greensburg GreenTown and other GreenTown projects, visit their website, http://www.greensburggreentown.org/


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Samantha-Rae Tuthill at SamanthaRae.Tuthill@accuweather.com, follow her on Twitter @Accu_Sam or Google+. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.

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