After the tornado: Stronger, better, greener

Thirty-nine months ago, standing in the wasteland that was once his beloved farm town, Greensburg School Superintendent Darin Headrick made a bold promise to the media, to parents and to himself:

“Whether we have 270 kids or we have one, we will be open in the fall,” he said.

Just days earlier, on May 4, 2007, a monster tornado had roared into Greensburg, its 200-mph winds slicing through cars, trees and sheetrock like helicopter blades. Ninety-five percent of the buildings were flattened, including the town’s elementary and high schools. Eleven people were dead.

Many of the reporters, politicians and disaster workers who flocked to the vast prairie of southwestern Kansas after the storm concluded that Greensburg, once home to 1,400, was finished.

Headrick knew that in any small town, the school is its heart. If Greensburg had no schools, there would be no reason for the townspeople who had scattered to surrounding communities to return and rebuild. Plans were made to roll trailers in for classrooms. They had no idea how many kids would come. More than 200 did.

He began to talk to architects to design a state-of-the art permanent building. When skeptics asked him what his backup plan was, he said he didn’t have one.

Today, three years later, Headrick walks the polished concrete hallways of the newly completed Kiowa County schools building, a $50-million, urban-chic tribute to sustainable construction. He points to the windows strategically placed for natural light, the cisterns to catch rainwater for the native-plant landscaping, the wind turbine out by the football field. The expected energy savings: 40%.

When classes started Aug. 19 for the 300 or so pre-Kindergarten to 12th-grade students in Greensburg and two nearby towns, it signaled a vindication of sorts to all those people who once said he and the rest of the town were nuts.

The school was only part of the town’s grand scheme: Greensburg would not only be rebuilt, it would become the greenest town in America. City Hall, the hospital, an arts center and a county building would be built to the highest level of sustainability, earning a coveted Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum designation. Even the John Deere store at the edge of town would have its own wind turbine.

And they were going to do it all in one of the most conservative corners of one of the most conservative states in the nation.

“If we re-created the town the way we were,” Headrick says, “we were destined for the same fate: a dying, declining rural community.”

“We kind of thought it was a gimmick,” confesses Gina Friesen, 35, as she and her daughters tour the new school on registration day. Born and raised in the area, she was luckier than most. Her house was spared, but her mother, her grandparents, her sister and her brother all lost theirs. She admits to being leery when town leaders were talking about green building. It seemed like something for the coasts, not them.

Reluctant townspeople were won over as proponents stressed history over hipness. More “Little House on the Prairie,” less Al Gore. They were reminded that their great-grandparents who settled the area in the 1880s were frugal stewards of the land who also used windmills and cisterns. They recycled and repurposed long before the terms were invented.

About 900 people have moved back to Greensburg. Some, like Terri Butler, lived in Greensburg before the storm. Others, like Mia Enfield, a single mother of four, arrived after the storm to volunteer and stayed. “I saw what people were trying to do here,” she says.

One of the unintended consequences of the greening of Greensburg is a demographic shift. The population is now younger than most rural small towns. City Manager Steve Hewitt says that bodes well for the town’s future.

Reinvention takes time, but Headrick is a patient man. “We’ve got families from other towns looking at us and saying this is the place to be,” he says.

Deam writes for The Times.