Until May 2007, the town of Greensburg was a rural county seat in western Kansas with a dwindling economy. On May 4, a tornado bulldozed nearly every structure and took the lives of 11 people. The tornado, rated an EF5, had wind speeds of more than 200 mph and cut a damaging swath 1.7 miles wide. Making the most of a tragic disaster, this struggling agricultural community of 1,500 now represents what builders and residents call a clean slate for an eco-town that will be unlike any other community in the world.

Daniel Wallach, whose home is 30 minutes north of the city, said it took him three days before he got over the shock and began to envision a green building option for the town.

“When I saw it, I thought ‘Wow, this is a clean slate,’” said Wallach, an entrepreneur who now is the director of Greensburg GreenTown, www.greensburggreentown.org. He said, like everyone else in the community, he was emotionally rattled by the tornado and its devastation, but he was surprised at how quickly the residents of Greensburg took to the idea of an eco-friendly town. In fact, he said, the town’s then-Mayor Lonnie McCollum and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius had the same brainstorm. This was the opportunity for Greensburg to live up to its name, to develop a community that used zero energy off the grid.

Whether that ambitious goal is realized is not yet certain, but there are plenty of people watching. In fact, the Discovery Channel has been filming a series on the rebuilding efforts.

Zenor Electric Inc., Hutchinson, Kan., has joined the forces of electrical contractors who will be helping the town rebuild business by business and home by home. And while some have greener goals than others, it is a fluid plan, Wallach said, that will continue to change as time and construction move forward.

For example, there has been talk of heating and cooling city buildings with a geothermal unit that uses underground tubes to take advantage of the earth’s constant below-ground temperature. However, there is a higher initial cost. It would be less expensive and less time-consuming to install a traditional heating, ventilation and air conditioning unit.

City leaders envision better energy efficiency, clean waste management, cleaner air and less dependence on fossil fuels.

Formerly, Greensburg received its power from Sunflower Electric Power Corp. on above-ground power lines that were still inoperable at press time. It also used supplemental power from diesel generators. But like nearly everything else in the town, those generators and the plant they operated in were rendered inoperable by the tornado. That gives the town the opportunity to add solar, wind or geothermal power generators to that plant.

In the meantime, Zenor Electric has been bringing the basics back to town. The company completed reconstruction of the Kwik Shop convenience store on Highway 54 in August 2007, the first shopping in the area for miles. The Kwik Shop’s 60-by-80-foot structure was rebuilt. A new gas canopy and dispensers for cold drinks and fuel were added. Work began on the Dillon Store food market in fall 2007.

For residents, the rebuilding has begun, as well.

“The residents have been amazing,” Wallach said. “They’re very open-minded. The fact that they could even entertain the idea of changing their lifestyles—under the stress of rebuilding their homes—is amazing.”

While he expected some opposition, he claimed he has yet to face much from homeowners in the town.

“This wasn’t a thriving community before. Now, people are prepared to seize the opportunity to be a model green community.”

The obstacle still before them is the added cost of greener technology, which Wallach called more of a perception than a reality. He pointed to the energy savings achieved from alternative energy, such as solar- or wind-generated power.

All the same, Greensburg Greentown hopes to attract financial assistance from the federal and state governments to help take on some rebuilding costs in the more green and more expensive methods, and it also is seeking contributions from new technologies vendors.

Since the tornado, the Department of Energy (DOE) is working with Greensburg on rebuilding options. With the DOE, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) helped the city complete a list of tasks, which is being funded by the DOE.

In testing the viability of alternative energy, NREL is running computer models for the Kansas climate to determine which methods of building will be most efficient, said Lynn Billman, NREL senior project leader. The results, she said, will provide a simple model to follow.

“If you want to be 30 percent more efficient than code, you do the following … ,” she said, as an example.

The recommendations and instructions will be available to builders and residents and include training sessions for local builders and contractors on the basics, such as energy-efficient foundations, walls and alternative energy systems.

NREL also has taken school superintendent Darin Headick to visit North Carolina schools that match an energy-efficient goal.

“We are also looking at wind generation,” NREL’s Billman said. “We’re looking at the school and town for renewable biomass, wind and solar. It’s an overarching analysis working with the city. We think it will be intuitively positive for Kansas.” This would build on the state’s potential for turbines in the country. “It’s a wonderful place for wind turbines,” she added.

Rebuilding has been a two-pronged approach. On an immediate level, the town is putting its infrastructure back in place, which means rebuilding the above-ground power supply and other basic utilities.

“We will need the same distribution system,” Wallach said. But he added, “Our vision is for a lot of homes to have their own source of power.”

Janice and John Haney, whose century-old brick home and bed and breakfast were destroyed in the tornado, are now building what they call an “earth house,” with the Discovery Channel chronicling their progress. Their first home, located across from the “Big Well”—the world’s largest hand-dug well—was pulled off its foundation by the twister while the Haneys hunkered down in the basement.

“You could hear the bricks hitting each other as the house lifted away,” Janice Haney said.

Like many others, the Haneys found immediate housing that was purely temporary—a camper on their farm just out of town. Not wanting to weather a Kansas winter in a camper, they have since secured a FEMA trailer. In the meantime, however, they have begun building.

“We have been married 32 years, and in that time the utility bills have been getting rather ridiculous,” Haney said. “Now we decided if we were going to have to build a house, it would have to be more efficient. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” The Haneys began researching energy-efficient options and now are building their earth home out of concrete, with dirt in the walls east and west and doors and windows facing north and south. A geothermal unit will provide radiant heat in the floors.

In the meantime, much of the town is hoping to get back to life as usual. The courthouse is operating out of six trailers, many agencies sharing their space. Minimal electricity has been restored on a temporary basis as the town prepares to put in permanent power. That power, although considered for underground, will again go above ground on poles said Mick Kendall, power plant supervisor.

“At this point, underground is too slow,” Kendall said. “People want to get rebuilt, so we’re putting the permanent power back in the air.”

Schools are meeting in modular classrooms with kindergarten through 12th grade on a common ground. School superintendent Headrick said he hopes to have a completed school campus constructed for kindergarten through 12th grade in time for the 2008–2009 school year.

“We’ll have a lot of sustainable design in our new facility,” he said. The school began working with BNIM Architects, Kansas City, on those plans in fall 2007. The plans include using wind energy as well as building a structure that takes advantage of natural daylighting.

“Those are our main two considerations,” Headrick said, but they also are considering geothermal energy and better controls over heat and air conditioning. Already, he said, the school district has taken input from the community on the sustainable design and intends to continue to do so as the plans take on more details.

Beyond sustainable building are the very basic concerns of manpower shortage, said Richard Hassiepen, a Greensburg building contractor who is constructing the Haney house. While many are rebuilding, and doing so with efficiency in mind, just getting the manpower to get the work done has caused some slowdowns, he said. Housing is nearly nonexistent, he pointed out, and those contractors who do come from Kansas City expect compensation for their mileage, something most in Greensburg are reluctant to pay.

Following the tornado, electrical contractors and electricians have offered their own manpower, said David Woodard, manager of the Kansas Chapter, NECA. “We got quite a few calls,” he said. Despite that, most of the work thus far has been managed by local contractors.

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.