West of Greensburg, Kansas in 2007
West of Greensburg, Kansas in 2007

By John Ruberry

Seven years ago ninety-percent of the small western Kansas town of Greensburg was destroyed by an F5 tornado. Two months later I visited there. Most of the rubble had been cleared away, FEMA housing was prevalent, as was the sound of rebuilding–power saws and hammers at work. The people I spoke with in Greensburg were hopeful and they didn’t expect me to feel sorry for them–I love the rural Midwest.

Later that year, Greensburg, which prior to the deadly twister was best known as the site of the world’s largest hand-dug well, made the decision to rebuild as a green energy town.

When the tornado hit, Greensburg, the seat of Kiowa County, had about 1,500 residents. According to the the US Census Bureau, only 777 people lived in Greensburg in 2010.

A week ago the Kansas City Star published a story with the headline, Greensburg, Kan., rebuilds from 2007 tornado — now it just needs more people.

From the Star:

International exposure, federal disaster aid and public-private partnerships gave rise to some of the greenest and most visually arresting public facilities of any city 100 times Greenburg’s size.

They included a $30 million hospital sporting angled, exterior walls and a new K-12 school campus that uses 55 percent less water than the destroyed one.

A whirring flock of wind turbines provides enough energy to the electric grid over the year to power every house, business and municipal building in Greensburg.

Patrons of the Bar H Tavern on U.S. 54 worry, though, that a community of 800 won’t be able to afford the maintenance on those turbines and the school’s dual-flush toilets. “Not everyone agrees with all this green stuff,” one local said. “What we really need is more people.”

So despite the many expensive platinum-level LEED buildings and the ten wind-turbine surrounding the town, “this green stuff” didn’t work out. Okay, that may be a cheap shot, since Great Plains towns such as Greensburg have been hemorrhaging people, believe it or not, since the end of the First World War. So Greensburg’s population almost certainly would have continued its slide had the tornado not hit.

Greensburg flags
Greensburg, late July, 2007

Cheap housing was one of Greensburg drawing cards, but home prices, although there is not a municipal requirement to build green, have more than doubled there since 2007. In most parts of America, home prices have plummeted since then.

Think about that.

Greensburg had hoped to lure green industry firms to the Plains, including solar-panel manufacturers, but officials are blaming the continuing languid economy for their absence.

I have another explanation: Perhaps green construction and renewable energy are a blind alley, at least in the short term. Maybe it will be that way forever. Sure, the wind turbines supply enough energy for a town with fewer than a thousand residents, but could the unreliable, unpredictable, and expensive power source work for nearby Dodge City?

What about Kansas City?

While I certainly give Greensburg credit for trying something new to end to the exodus from its corner of the Plains, perhaps it’s time for it to reverse course.

Or they can look forward to a time when the green movement is an historic curiosity, along the lines of the world’s largest hand-dug well, and then transform Greensburg into an environmentalist reenactment community–something like Colonial Williamsburg.

John ruberryJohn Ruberry blogs at Marathon Pundit.


Olimometer 2.52

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