Greensburg Is Shiny And New, But Struggling To Bring In People

May 5, 2017
Originally published on May 5, 2017 7:37 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When the sun came up 10 years ago this morning, residents of Greensburg, Kan., got their first good look at the aftermath of a massive tornado. That storm nearly obliterated the town. Greensburg, though, came back. Here's Frank Morris of member station KCUR.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The town of Greensburg was hurting before the storm, but people truly loved the place.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARAGE DOOR OPENING)

MORRIS: Lonnie McCullum is standing in his workshop on a warm evening reminiscing.

LONNIE MCCULLUM: We used to sit out in the backyard and say, man, we're living the perfect life. I knew every crack in the sidewalks. Every place had a story. And it was just great.

MORRIS: McCullum was mayor when the enormous tornado, blowing 200 miles an hour, chewed up and spit out his town. It killed 11 people. And as far as McCullum and his wife are concerned, it blew away Greensburg's identity.

MCCULLUM: So it was a crushing, crushing blow to us. And we'll never recover from that and never will. We feel like we're just gypsies now.

MORRIS: Heartbroken and exhausted, McCullum stepped down three weeks later. He moved 30 miles away and doesn't even like to visit Greensburg now. But before he left, McCullum launched a radical transformation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: With the strong backing of the local government, this town is being rebuilt as a model of environmental sustainability.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN JANSSEN: You've got to have a hook.

MORRIS: That's John Janssen, who took over as mayor after McCullum walked away. He argued forcefully that rebuilding Greensburg green would give the town a marketable new identity, make it sustainable environmentally and economically, though some just wanted to restore the old town.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JANSSEN: I very openly told them that if they wanted to rebuild Main Street like it was, they should buy the plywood to cover up the windows because we were already doing that before the tornado.

MORRIS: They're not boarding up windows in Greensburg these days.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRINDER)

MORRIS: At sunset, Jody Kirk and some others are laying inscribed bricks at the base of a new stainless steel sculpture.

So this is a memorial to the people who died in the storm?

JODY KIRK: No, it's a thank you to the people who helped us rebuild.

MORRIS: And there were lots of them, from environmentalist architects to President George W. Bush. The support poured into this town of 800, thousands of volunteers and tens of millions of dollars helping to build, among other things, six LEED Platinum buildings. That's more than you'll find in any of a dozen entire states. This place has wind turbines, public art and good food.

SHELBY SMITH: Yeah. And it's kind of almost just a little bubble of hope. You'll drive down Main Street and you see businesses.

MORRIS: Twenty-six-year-old Shelby Smith runs the Crazy Mule restaurant.

SMITH: The tornado was kind of a blessing and a curse for a lot of people around here. They had their homes knocked over, but it kind of gave them another chance to rebuild and make something new of what was crushed. So I actually had that chance as well to come back here and build my own restaurant.

MORRIS: Opportunities like that are scarce in rural America, and they're not all that plentiful in Greensburg. Ten years out from the tornado, the town's population is about 60 percent what it was before the storm and holding.

JANSSEN: We're a one-horse town in the middle of the boonies, you know, if you get down to the short rows of it.

MORRIS: That's John Janssen again.

JANSSEN: The new jobs that we tried to attract, especially green jobs, they didn't pan out. They dried up on us. And so, you know, we're still in the market.

MORRIS: Some of that was just bad luck. The Great Recession was just around the corner. But the town's main challenge might be its location. Wichita is the closest big city, and it's 110 miles away. Steve Hewitt, Greensburg's former city manager, says it suffers from the same economic and social ills strangling many small towns. He says at least this one is trying to face those harsh realities head-on.

STEVE HEWITT: If these rural communities don't reinvent themselves, what's going to happen is these tornadoes that are not actual physical tornadoes, but these disasters will come sweeping through, and there will not be a town. There simply won't be.

MORRIS: Greensburg, of course, did reinvent itself, built with grit and vision. This 19th century town reached for a new identity aimed at helping it survive in the 21st. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Greensburg, Kan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.