written by:
photos by:
April 6, 2011
Originally published in The Photo Issue

On May 4, 2007, Greensburg, Kansas, was wiped off the map. An EF5 tornado ravaged the small town of 1,400 residents, destroying or severely damaging 95 percent of the city. Less than a week later, however, the survivors did the incredible: At a meeting under a tent, they rallied to rebuild as a sustainable city.

 

Some community members at first were skeptical, but they later embraced the idea of following in the footsteps of their ancestors, who had lived off the land. With the backing of the city, state, and federal governments and the nonprofit Greensburg GreenTown, founded by nearby Stafford County residents Daniel Wallach and Catherine Hart, the town has become a sustainable mecca—boasting more than 25 green projects so far and attracting thousands of eco-tourists.

The Big Well in Greensburg, Kansas
We're not in Kansas anymore, except we are—despite what the wind turbines may suggest. After being torn to shreds by a twister, Greensburg has rebuilt itself as a beacon of sustainable design in the middle of the American heartland.
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Wind turbines near Greensburg, Kansas
The 1.7-mile-wide tornado hung over Greensburg for eight minutes and destroyed nearly all of the 1.5-square-mile town.
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Main Street in Greensburg, Kansas
Main Street, Greensburg, Kansas, nearly four years after the tornado. "The town is a living green science museum," says Greensburg GreenTown cofounder Daniel Wallach. "It's not theoretical; it's something people can tough, feel, and see in action."
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Main Street tornado aftermath in Greensburg, Kansas
Remnants of the past provide contrast to the new buildings and LED streetlights that line Main Street. "Everything is new but you have an awareness of the destruction if for no other reason than the trees are so haggard and really stumpy, but in a very violent stumpy kind of way," says photographer Alec Soth, who visited Greensburg for Dwell to shoot these images.
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Greensburg, Kansas tornado aftermath
These steps are among the remains left by and reminders of the 2007 tornado.
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Greensburg, Kansas road side wind turbines
The tornado that swept through Greensburg wasn't even the largest to touch down in Kansas that evening in May 2007. A three-mile-wide twister hit ground about 30 miles away.
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Greensburg GreenTown founders Wallach and Catherine Hart
Greensburg GreenTown founders Wallach and Catherine Hart. Though they live 35 miles from Greensburg, the two became intimately involved in the rebuilding efforts as a friend of the town; both were close with Greensburg residents and had started a natural foods co-op nearby that several Greensburg families were a part of before the tornado.
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Greensburg, Kansas city administrator Steve Hewitt
Through early 2011, city administrator Steve Hewitt led the charge for a “stronger, better, greener” Greensburg, working with community members like Greensburg GreenTown founders Wallach and Hart.
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Green-roofed City Hall designed by BNIM Architects in Greensburg, Kansas
Completed in 2009, the green-roofed City Hall, designed by BNIM Architects, served as an early symbol of the town’s commitment to sustainability and green building.
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Former Greensburg Kansas council president John Janssen
Just weeks after the storm, then–city council president John Janssen assumed the role of mayor.
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LEED Platinum standard elementary school
Janssen oversaw the December 2007 passing of a resolution requiring all publicly funded buildings, like the new K–12 school, be built to LEED Platinum standards.
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Exterior view of Kiowa County School
The Kiowa County Schools campus opened its doors in August 2010, just in time for the new school year for the 375 K-12 students it can support. A 50-kilowatt, on-site wind generator and ground source heat pump system have made the building 50-percent more energy efficient than similar structures built to standard building code.
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Cowboy at community gathering
A close-knit community where everyone knows everyone enabled the rethinking of Greensburg as a sustainable town and provided the joint effort needed to realize the plan. "What happened wasn't due to any one person or organization," Wallach says. "It's an example of what we can do when everyone comes together."
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Centera Bank in Greensburg, Kansas
Though individual businesses and residents are not required to built green, many have embraced the town's enthusiasm for sustainable design. The owners of Centera Bank rebuilt the bank where the old structure had stood and incorporated strategies such as passive daylighting, LED lighting systems, low-flow fixtures, rain-water collection, and others to achieve LEED certification.
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Modern funeral home with insulated concrete form and Trombe wall
Another businessperson to adopt green-building practices was J. Wynn Fleener, who rebuilt his family’s funeral home with insulated concrete form (ICF) blocks and a Trombe wall.
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Modern LEED certified house with side dome
Residents, too, have taken the opportunity of rebuilding to embrace experimentation.
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LEED Platinum certified The 16 Prairie Pointe Townhouse
The 16 Prairie Pointe Townhouses (one shown here) include eight of the state’s first LEED Platinum residences.
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Resident Kari Kyle on a Greensburg, Kansas road
Resident Kari Kyle moved back to the area after the tornado to fulfill her dream of opening a coffee shop, the Green Bean Coffee Company.
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5.4.7 Arts Center in Greensburg, Kansas
The 5.4.7 Arts Center is a green—in color and building strategy—glass rectangle in Greensburg.
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Artwork in the 5.4.7 Art Center in Greensburg, Kansas
Artwork hangs in the 5.4.7 Arts Center showing the destruction from the tornado.
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Wind- and solar-powered 5.4.7 Arts Center designed by the University of Kansas students
The wind- and solar-powered 5.4.7 Arts Center was designed and built by students from the University of Kansas’s Studio 804. The name reflects the date the tornado touched down.
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Motor bikers on a flat dirt road in Greensburg, Kansas
The town, small enough to walk end to end in five minutes, is surrounded by a flat landscape, something that the residents take full advantage of.
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Greensburg, Kansas resident portrait
Though residents have finally re-established regular routines, "a lot of people are really tired," Wallach says. "It's four years after the storm and people have been working nonstop to get their lives back to some semblance of order."
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Water tower in Greensburg, Kansas
The water tower stands as a beacon in the tiny town. "It's really small," photographer Alec Soth said after traveling to Greensburg for the shoot. "The first day I didn't know anything and was asking for directions. Then I realized, it's all right here. I knew every corner by the end of my short time there."
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Wallach and Catherine Hart Silo by the Silo Eco-House in Greensburg, Kansas
Hart and Wallach walk outside the Silo Eco-House, the first of Greensburg GreenTown's series of Eco-Homes. These buildings will be bed and breakfasts where eco-tourists can stay and experience green building. (The homes will be filled with small plaques explaining the different sustainable strategies, products, and fixtures used throughout the residence.) The Silo Eco-Home is the first B&B and also houses the Greensburg GreenTown headquarters.
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The Big Well in Greensburg, Kansas
We're not in Kansas anymore, except we are—despite what the wind turbines may suggest. After being torn to shreds by a twister, Greensburg has rebuilt itself as a beacon of sustainable design in the middle of the American heartland.

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