Green Up This Mess

Can a televised environmental makeover save an obliterated Kansas farm town from vanishing again?

Ben Paynter

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FROM ATOP THE Southern Plains Co-Op grain elevator, the view of Greensburg, Kansas, population 1,400, is still a post-apocalyptic wasteland of unmarked streets, splintered timbers, and rubble. In May 2007, a nearly two-mile-wide EF-5 tornado—the most severe on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, capable of debarking trees and removing well-built structures from their foundations—destroyed 90 percent of the town and killed ten people. The 120-foot silo was the tallest building left untouched, and on this snowy February morning, Greensburg mayor John Janssen is standing on its observation deck, giving me a difficult sales pitch.

“This area needed urban renewal and got it,” he tries to joke. But the plan isn’t just to rebuild. As the first nationally televised disaster after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Greensburg was FEMA’s chance for redemption. The agency quickly ponied up $18 million to rebuild public properties and help residents who didn’t have insurance. More help soon followed from other federal sources. With so much cash suddenly available, the residents had a better idea: use the emergency recovery funds as seed money to turn the fading agri­cultural outpost into the most aggressively environmental community in the country—Greensburg. Now the hope is to make the town a tech hub for carbon-conscious companies and a showcase for eco-living.

Among the first to embrace this idea was the Discovery network. Cameramen from Discovery’s Planet Green channel showed up to film a 13-episode documentary series, called Greensburg, which debuts on June 15. “The fact that the town’s name is Greensburg? In the TV world, that’s a calling,” says Eileen O’Neill, general manager of Planet Green. Leo DiCaprio signed on as an executive producer last August.

By 2010, public buildings on Main Street will be platinum-certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) council and capped with solar panels. City Hall and the high school will be built from glass and steel, and the museum will include a rooftop garden. Sidewalks will be wider, streets narrower, and planters filled with drought-resistant Japanese zelkova watered by runoff. Every new home will be LEED-certified, and toilets will flush with rainwater captured in cisterns. Powering it all will be the turbines of a three-megawatt wind farm. That’s the vision, anyway.

The price tag for one utopian hamlet, built from scratch? Thirty million, according to city manager Steve Hewitt, plus an es­timated $4 million for the wind farm. Even with the FEMA dough, the town is still $8 million short of its goal—a big sum where the average income was $18,000 before everyone lost their jobs.

That’s where Discovery comes in. The network hasn’t paid for access, but Hewitt is convinced the publicity will attract corporate sponsors looking to cash in on the coming green-tech boom. Hang your shingle in Greensburg and suddenly you’re on TV rescuing the American dream and solving climate change. That’s good PR. “Companies can’t make up the associative value of saving this town,” says Hollywood environmental consultant John Picard, who does cameos throughout the series.

Even if companies do buy in, though, it seems like a long shot to save a brain-drained town that might have eventually disappeared even without the twister. Take away the technology and it’s still an isolated farming community on the Kansas prairie. Daniel Esty, a Planet Green board member and director of the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale, worries that the “Kansas experiment” could be a lopsided idea: too many luxe shelters and no specific business plan beyond farming-as-usual. “It isn’t to say these guys won’t succeed, but if you are going to maximize the chances, you have to work these issues simultaneously,” says Esty.

So far, plans for an eco–industrial park have attracted just one tenant. And no major enviro-industries have committed to using Greensburg as a showcase for their wares. The precedents aren’t so good, either.

Midway, Idaho, became Atomic City after the Atomic Energy Commission fired up the world’s first power-generating breederreactor there in 1951. As of the 2000 census, Atomic City was down to 25 residents. More recently, in 2005, BioTown USA—a.k.a. Reynolds, Indiana—was supposed to be the first city in the country to become energy independent. But the half-built ethanol plant there hasn’t seen construction since investors bailed out last October.

Greensburg was still in the it’s-all-good phase during my visit, as Janssen emphasized at a public meeting held inside a temporary high school gym. “Things look better than they ever have,” he told a crowd of 300. Locals, Discovery honchos, and major corporate donors had gathered to view science-fair-like booths that showcased the town’s investment opportunities, including touristy eco-lodges and the nearly vacant industrial park. Cheers became standing ovations when Picard delivered a speech while the cameras rolled. “It’s a fight. It’s not easy,” he said. “You don’t fully understand it. But do you feel it?”

Sort of. In April, the citizens of Greensburg voted to oust Janssen in favor of a more conservative replacement. “It is the business sector that, I think, needs a little stronger focus right now,” says new mayor Bob Dixson. After all, once the applause for Picard and his entourage ended, folks noticed that they’d simply vanished, having been whisked off in a private jet to sleep somewhere else.