Lessons from Greensburg: Storm-devastated towns look to rebuild - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports

Lessons from Greensburg: Towns devastated by tornadoes look to rebuild

In the hours after the storm that plowed through Tuscaloosa, AL, residents flooded the streets to view the damage. (Source: Jason Clark) In the hours after the storm that plowed through Tuscaloosa, AL, residents flooded the streets to view the damage. (Source: Jason Clark)

(RNN) - After one of the deadliest storm seasons on record, hundreds are dead and dozens of communities are learning what it takes to start over and rebuild from scratch.

One tiny town in Kansas is helping cities such as Tuscaloosa, AL, and Joplin, MO, and even smaller blips on the map such as Smithville, MS, do just that.

In 2007, the town of Greensburg, KS, with a population of around 1,500 at the time, was struck by a massive EF5 tornado which virtually wiped the community off the map.

The storm destroyed everything in its path and left 11 dead.

In the aftermath, the town was faced with mounds of debris and the residents with the specter of no jobs and no homes to return to.

For city officials, their goal suddenly became trying to save the town from dying - not from a loss of buildings, but from a loss of people with nothing left to hold on to.

Mayor Bob Dixson said that as a small community, they were losing people even before the storm, so rebuilding in a way that would grow the community was a top priority.

"If you keep putting in what you always put in, you'll keep getting out what you've always got out" Dixson said.

That thinking became a focal point for the town as those determined to stay made decisions about how they wanted to begin again.

Steve Hewitt, who is now the city manager of Clinton, OK, but at the time was the city manager of Greensburg, was a key factor in its recovery process as he and other officials worked on a recovery plan.

"Everything you didn't like about your community you can change, we can make the community better, smarter, just build it in a new way so the future's bright," he said.

The decision was to go green - to rebuild Greensburg to be energy efficient, sustainable and in a way that would allow the community to live with the resources the land had given them.

Hewitt said the idea for going green came from the community, and it just so happened that the town's name was Greensburg.

"Sometimes the stars align, and it's a magical moment," he said.

The town rebranded itself as a truly "green" community, and within four years of the tornado, on May 4, 2007, Dixson said the community has rebuilt all major municipal buildings, a hospital and a K-12 school, to LEED-certified standards.

The U.S. Green Building Council, USGBC, certifies energy efficient buildings to LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, standards.

Dixson said many green building technologies were first tried out on Greensburg.

"We're a living laboratory," he said.

But green building wasn't the only thing that Greensburg changed about itself. It also consolidated municipal buildings to keep costs down and make operations more streamlined and convenient.

One such example was putting the hospital, family practice clinic, fire department and EMS all on one campus - and that idea proved to be popular.

What communities can learn from Greensburg

The idea of building and service consolidation - along with seizing the opportunity of a clean slate - is one of the big things that officials from recently devastated communities have taken away from the small Kansas town.

Greensburg has hosted recovery summits for many communities, both large and small, ranging from Tuscaloosa to the tiny town of Smithville to help them through their rebuilding process and help them decide how to move forward.

The meetings emphasize how destruction could be an opportunity and not just a loss.

"The biggest thing that we brought back, or at least I did, is seizing an opportunity," said John McConnell, Tuscaloosa's Director of Planning and Development Services.

"They thought in terms of integrated systems: in other words, they lost everything," McConnell said.

Tuscaloosa was hit by an EF4 tornado on April 27, 2011 that left 43 dead and flattened a large chunk in the city of more than 80,000.

[SLIDESHOW: Southeast slammed by record tornados]

Although Tuscaloosa is more than 100 times the size of Greensburg, it faces many of the same challenges.

But another leveled community, Smithville, has even more in common with the completely destroyed Greensburg.

Also on April 27, the small town of Smithville, with an estimated population of just under 900, was struck by an EF5 tornado - the strongest on the Enhanced Fujita scale and the same strength that hit Greensburg.

The town lost 16 people that day.

[SLIDESHOW: Smithville damage]

Assistant to the Mayor Michelle Bond said 98 percent of the town's commercial buildings are gone.

"We have no income," she said, referring to the loss from the twister. The town is largely a retirement community that does not pay income taxes.

Bond was one of the members of a delegation from Smithville who visited Greensburg. The idea of seizing an opportunity seems to be something the town has taken to heart.

The city is now working on getting a planned five-lane highway to pass through the center of what will be the rebuilt town. Bond also walked away with the idea of a "business incubator" that would provide low-rent storefronts for local businesses, which after a set number of years would theoretically build up enough clientele to move out into the community.

But the town has an uphill battle getting back on its feet as a small community off of the beaten path in Mississippi.

They are fighting to get their post office rebuilt, and Bond feared it may not come back.

"We have businesses that are coming back and some that aren't, we have families who are coming back and some who aren't," she said.

However, she also said that no matter what, the town would never be the same.

"It's hard to accept the fact that it's not going to be the same, it's going to be different," but Bond also said it was important to think about the future of the community.

Importance of Community

Hewitt stressed that it was important to get the community involved in whatever planning process was under way.

"The most important thing is you have a plan, you've got to take the time to make that plan and involve the community," he said.

"Recovery is very difficult, it is time consuming, and it is long."

He said that people may be hesitant until they begin to see results, but warned that many things are long-term instead of short-term fixes. But the community needs to be there for every step of the way.

"The community's got to buy into it and support it or it's not going to be successful," he said. "You have to create that process, you have to create a process of involving people.

Dixson said that the Greensburg community turned out en mass when it came to being involved.

"We would have community meetings where we would have 400 to 500 people showing up to the meetings," he said.

After the meeting in Greensburg, the Tuscaloosa Task Force launched an online town hall to gather community input from residents about what they want in their rebuilt community.

At the website, residents can submit ideas ranging from land use and urban design to infrastructure and sustainability.

Hundreds of ideas and thousands of comments have been submitted, making Tuscaloosa's page the most active town hall the site has had so far. Many people seemed to want more sidewalks and biking trails in the city, something which was also implemented in Greensburg to promote shopping and foot traffic.

And though it may take a while for any of the ideas to pan out, it gives city officials a place to start in planning for the future.

Challenges ahead

All of the communities affected by this deadly storm season have a long road to recovery ahead of them.

Despite Greensburg's progress, four years out it still is not back to its pre-storm population.

McConnell surveyed the town while he was visiting.

"They are four years out from their tornado, and it was a small rural community, and they lost half their population, half their population did not come back," he said.

"There are still a lot of vacant lots."

Dixson said that the difficult part now is creating the jobs to attract residents.

"Everyone that has a job or source of income has already rebuilt their homes," he said.

Greensburg is banking that its name and green status will prove useful in attracting green energy industry to the community. Meanwhile, it survives on the agriculture, oil and gas jobs that returned after the storm.

While jobs may not be as much of an issue for a larger community like Tuscaloosa, which is large enough to buffer any temporary loss, for small towns like Smithville it could be devastating.

But Bond said she learned one more thing from her visit to the small town in Kansas.

"You can come back after an EF5."

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