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Kansas Town Destroyed By Tornado Spreads Blame For Lack Of Growth


We have been reporting on tornadoes that carved a deadly and destructive path through the South this week, scenes that are familiar to the people of Greensburg, Kansas. Seven years ago, a massive tornado all but obliterated that city. Local leaders wanted to rebuild green; energy efficient and environmentally responsible. And their plan attracted a lot of money and volunteers. But now, Greensburg is at a crossroads with only half its pre-tornado population and few prospects for growth. Some blame larger trends that are decimating many farm towns. Others, though, say the green initiative is what's holding Greensburg back.

Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.


FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Seven years ago, just hours after the tornado shredded Greensburg and its schools, Superintendent Darin Headrick stood in the rubble, under black clouds, promising rebirth.

DARIN HEADRICK: Towns are about people. They're not about buildings. And as long as the people are willing to stay, the way of life stays.

MORRIS: Fast forward to today...


MORRIS: ...and natural sunlight bathes Headrick inside Greensburg's beautiful, high-tech public school.

HEADRICK: I do think this building is doing what it's supposed to. It does allow us to attract people - new kids, new families - and allow us to attract staff.

MORRIS: It uses about one quarter the energy a typical school does, part of a very ambitious green rebuilding program here led by people like Ruth Ann Wedel.

RUTH ANN WEDEL: We said build it and they will come. We saw it as an opportunity to recreate ourselves. So it was exciting to dream big.

MORRIS: And it made a terrific story, even a reality show.


MORRIS: After the tornado, architects and volunteer workers swept in, fueled by at least $75 million from taxpayers and insurance companies. Now, Greensburg is a patchwork of houses, placed around bleak vacant lots, and more than a dozen very modern, super-efficient buildings.

Daniel Wallach, founder of Greensburg GreenTown, says it's the highest concentration of them in the country.

DANIEL WALLACH: Quite remarkable but, frankly, since that first year not much has happened.

MORRIS: The tornado money is long gone and the population is still stuck at about 800 - right where it was just after the disaster.

WALLACH: The town is struggling. There's a lot of fear and concern in town, that it may not be sustainable as a community - ghost town. And some people in the community are blaming the green initiative itself, which is crazy.


MORRIS: At the Bar H Tavern, a low-slung red building - spared by the tornado - a few customers grouse loudly about the town's green focus. Nobody would agree to be interviewed but I did get an earful. These men claim they were cut out of the process, didn't see a dime of the millions spent. They say the whole thing was crazy expensive and silly; some rich outsider's utopian vision, nothing to do with a hard-working Kansas farm town.

Though you can get a good cup of coffee...

TIM KYLE: What can I get for you this morning?

MORRIS: Tim Kyle runs the Green Bean coffee shop with his wife.

KYLE: Well, obviously there would have been mistakes made. There's no blueprint, there's no book to follow, there's no check list to go on, your entire town got completely wiped off the face of the map.

MORRIS: But Kyle backs the green initiative. Take it away, he says and there's nothing to distinguish Greensburg from hundreds of other little towns, withering on high plains.

Tom Corns, a third generation Greensburg banker, agrees. But says being green isn't enough.

TOM CORNS: We haven't built any new houses for about a year. What we need are some more jobs, actually, to bring people to town.

MORRIS: People like Fred Weir.

FRED WEIR: I wanted to build an industry, a ma and pa industry.

MORRIS: Weir bolted back to Greensburg, his home town, three months after the tornado. He coordinated 100s of volunteers building new houses for tornado victims. He built one for his own family, too, and a shop for his budding construction business, but that $40 an hour work has since dried up here.

WEIR: So I took a $12 an hour job, or less, from the county, maintaining the buildings. I'm happy as can be but I'm not able to pay for my house.

MORRIS: Or sell it, yet.

Here on the edge of town, a big, modern sign proclaims: Greensburg Industrial Park.

ED TRUELOVE: To let folks know it's here. Otherwise they drive by and say, what a large field.

MORRIS: Greensburg's City Manager Ed Truelove hopes to lure a little oil drilling company or an Ag-related factory. But he says business well-suited to this remote area fear red tape in Greensburg.

TRUELOVE: We'll have companies that choose not to even call Greensburg, because we're green. So we need to just concentrate on the economy itself, rather than just being green and sustainable.

MORRIS: Because towns out here face brutal, sustained economic headwinds. The region used to be full of big families running small farms. All those country folks shopped in closely spaced little towns. Now, the farms out here are enormous, the families are small, and towns like Greensburg grope for reason to exist.

TRUELOVE: And in that regard we're no different than any small town in Kansas, who's faced the same declining populations; that the children graduating high school, going off to college and not coming back.

WALLACH: Personally, I think it's a cop out.

MORRIS: Daniel Wallach is frustrated with Greensburg. He's close to folding Greensburg GreenTown for lack of progress or funding.

Superintendent Headrick is calling for perseverance.

HEADRICK: When the tornado happened, we were around 100 years old. We're seven years old right now, just about. What do we need? We need time. You grow communities a family at a time. You grow them a job at a time.

MORRIS: Greensburg will soon celebrate the grand opening of new movie theater. That's a big deal in a town 800. And when the party is over Greensburg will face the same harsh challenge it has for years, trying to scratch out an existence - green or otherwise - on the high plains of Kansas.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.