UNT professor researching recovery of Greensburg, Kansas, after 2007 tornado

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- On May 4, 2007, the small town of Greensburg, Kan., was devastated by an EF5 tornado, which produced wind speeds of more than 200 miles per hour. Hitting at 9:45 p.m., the tornado, estimated to be 1.7 miles in width, destroyed 95 percent of the city and killed 11 people.

Although the devastation of the town was as complete as Ground Zero in Manhattan and parts of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Greensburg's plan to rebuild as a "green" town may result in it becoming a model for other communities recovering from disasters, according to Dr. Jack Rozdilsky, University of North Texas assistant professor of public administration.

Rozdilsky, who teaches in both the Department of Public Administration's undergraduate and graduate degree programs in emergency administration and planning, recently began a long-term study of Greensburg, interviewing city government officials and others about the town's plans for recovery. Earlier this spring, Rozdilsky visited the town with students from the doctoral degree program in public administration, and he plans to return this summer.

After the tornado, Greensburg's city council passed a resolution stating that all city building would be built to platinum standards set by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED program of the U.S. Green Building Council. A nonprofit organization, Greensburg GreenTown, was created to help the city's residents learn about and implement the green living initiative.

Rozdilsky said the ideas for green building developed almost immediately after the tornado, when Greensburg residents were temporarily displaced after their town was catastrophically destroyed.

"It was a very large step for the town's leaders and citizens to decide that the town needed to survive, because there was nothing left after the tornado, and the town had existing economic problems before it hit," he said. "But very few cities engage in some form of long-term community betterment after a disaster, and by recreating a town or place with green technology, you can create new economic development opportunities out of the tragedy of the disaster."

Building projects earn points toward LEED standards points by satisfying specific green building criteria in each of six categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality and innovation in design. All government buildings in Greensburg will be constructed according to LEED platinum standards -- the highest of the LEED standards.

The first building to be built to platinum standards will be the city's Business Incubator, which will be located on Greensburg's Main Street. Initial reconstruction in the city is being funded by USDA Rural Development. Like all other platinum-LEED structures, the Business Incubator will be constructed with environmentally friendly building materials, use water-saving toilets and include passive solar design and highly efficient light bulbs, Rozdilsky said.

He pointed out that while Greensburg is not the first city to attempt green building after a disaster, it may be the most successful.

In 1978, the town of Soldiers Grove, Wis., decided to relocate its downtown area away from a floodplain following a flood of the Kickapoo River that inflicted half a million dollars in damages. Rozdilsky said the city focused on using passive solar energy in its reconstruction.

In 1993, the town of Valmeyer, Ill., relocated to higher ground two miles away after the Mississippi River flood. Because of its complex disaster recovery, it was only partly successful in its green rebuilding effort, Rozdilsky said.

"Greensburg is taking the lessons learned from these two cities and incorporating them into its own green building plan," he said.

He noted that the city faces several threats to its green reconstruction effort, including losing community momentum for the reconstruction.

"You may have lots of good ideas for green building, but if the building takes five years, residents may move to other places," he said. "If you're living in a FEMA trailer, you don't want to wait a long time for a green house to be designed. That's why Greensburg officials were smart to start with green recovery plans at an early point in the process."

LEED platinum buildings cost about 5 percent more to build than conventional buildings, but because green buildings generally save 30 percent to 50 percent on energy bills, the increase in cost can be recouped in one to two years.

Future LEED platinum city building projects include Greensburg City Hall and a gift shop and tourism center for the Big Well -- the world's largest hand-dug well and the attraction that Greensburg was known for before the tornado, according to the Greensburg web site.

Greensburg will be the subject of a 13-part series beginning this June on the new cable channel Discovery Planet Green. "The Greensburg Project," which will have actor Leonardo DiCaprio as an executive producer, will be the flagship program for the channel, Rozdilsky said.

"The momentum for recovery for Greensburg is enhanced because the Discovery Channel is involved. Right now, the residents are seeing it as a win-win situation," he said.

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