Episode 116 - Rebuilding as a Green Community with Greensburg Greentown
Host Sean Daily, discusses rebuilding as a green community in the aftermath of a natural disaster with Daniel Wallach, Director of Greensburg GreenTown.
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Sean Daily: Hi, and welcome to GreenTalk, a podcast series from greenlivingideas.com. GreenTalk helps listeners in their efforts to lead more eco-friendly lifestyles through interviews with top vendors, authors and experts from around the world. We discuss the critical issues facing the global environment today as well as the technologies, products and practices that you can employ to go greener in every area of your life.
Hey, everybody this is Sean Daily with GreenTalk Radio from greenlivingideas.com. And today we’re going to be talking on a very interesting topic. It’s the unimaginable -- your town or city is leveled by a natural disaster. In this case a tornado. Well, the unimaginable happened to a city called Greensburg, Kansas back in May 2007. It made national news.
What’s very interesting about this story, however, is the way that the town came together to rebuild. And also employing green practices and sustainable practices and sort of going back to the drawing board.
And I have on the line with me to discuss this very interesting story is Daniel Wallach who is the director of an organization called Greensburg Greentown, which has a former relationship with the city to do the rebuilding and implement these green practices.
So, first of all, Daniel, welcome to GreenTalk Radio.
Daniel Wallach: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Sean Daily: So, this is a fascinating story. Tell us -- first of all, if you can tell us a little bit about, I’d like to just hear about the story of the tornado, just as a reminder to our listeners that may have forgotten some of the details and so forth. I mean, and also, what was the impact on the city, the level of the destruction and such?
Daniel Wallach: Yeah, it’s really quite amazing. It’s almost kind of mythical in how it unfolded. An EF-5 tornado, which is a highest ferocity intensity tornado measureable -- in fact, others think it’s greater than that. But it was a 1.7 mile wide tornado that started at the beginning of the town at that magnitude and went all the way through. Now, this town is 2 miles wide. So it almost destroyed every single structure in the town. It was actually somewhere between 90 and 95% of the town was destroyed.
Sean Daily: Wow.
Daniel Wallach: The miracle in all of it was that fewer than a dozen people died. They say had there not been great warning that came from the Weather Center that easily 3 to 400 people could have died. I mean the destruction was that severe. Even people in their basements were affected because the destruction was that complete. So then the good news was although it’s still a tragedy, of course, that more people didn’t die.
But infrastructure-wise, materially the town was destroyed. So it was the only options were walking away from it or completely rebuilding from scratch, this town. And the character of the people who lived there and the resilience of that culture -- which was a classic rural America, very independent, very strong, and their heritage is people that have come back for their city and, you know, they pioneered. They homesteaded out there.
So, these people were never, never a doubt they were going to rebuild this town and they chose to do that right away. And they were very excited about the concept of, you know, giving the name of the town Greensburg. It made sense to perhaps rebuild and pioneer green in that way.
Sean Daily: Really, now, they decided that was the name of the town actually had some effect in that as well?
Daniel Wallach: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know what? It just made a lot of sense to rebuild with that identity. That it would bring a kind of resources and exposure to the town that otherwise wouldn’t happen. So that definitely helped kind of sell the concept.
Sean Daily: OK, so who is the original -- or what group of individuals were the original impetus behind sort of going green? I mean, other than the name of the city obviously. There would have to be some sort of -- I would just imagine some collective groundswell of interest in sustainable living and sustainable building with regards to rebuilding the city. Who is the original sort of organization that got behind that?
Daniel Wallach: Well, it was really -- I mean, you know the time has come for an idea when several people have that idea simultaneously and that’s what happened with Greensburg. Fortunately the mayor and the city administrator both had the idea in the very beginning. But somebody also did from the Governor’s office and I did. And I live about 35 miles north of the town. The storm missed us by about two miles.
So, we developed a concept paper talking about the potential and rebuilding Greensburg green. And we took that down to the first town meeting following the storm, which was exactly a week after the storm. And I spoke with the mayor and the city administrator and said, you know their hands were full. And I said, “If you let me kind of spearhead this idea, I’ll take it and do that.”
And we built this organization and kind of organized the community around it. Did a lot of listening to the community and a lot of educating the community and the rest, they say, is history. [bad audio]
Sean Daily: I’m going to pause right there. We’re going to come back and I have some more questions for you. We’ll be right back on GreenTalk Radio after this short break. Thank you.
Sean Daily: OK. We are back on GreenTalk Radio. This is Sean Daily. I’m talking to Daniel Wallach who is the director of Greensburg Greentown, which is an organization related to Greensburg, Kansas, the city that was devastated by the May 2007 tornado.
Daniel, we were talking before the break about how this all sort of came to pass after the devastation occurred, how the idea of Go Green as a community during the rebuilding process. I’m just curious about moving forward from that.
Tell us about the first steps that occurred to sort of bring the community together around this, you know, sort of financially, the building. Bring us forward in how this actually started taking place.
Daniel Wallach: Yeah, well, the storm which really devastated the community. My wife and I live out in the country about 35 miles north of the town. And we were missed by that storm that night by about 2 miles. So we felt very lucky but really saddened about what had happened to our neighbors. So, just moved to thinking about how we could help the community.
And I wrote a concept paper about rebuilding the town green and all of the benefits that will provide this community. And I took it down and presented the concept paper to the city leaders that met for the first time following the storm, a week after that storm. And found that the mayor and city administrator were already talking about building green. So they had had that idea. And somebody from the Governor’s office had that idea.
So there was a lot of Cinergy there. And I proposed to both the city administrator and the mayor that they let me kind of spearhead this effort since their hands were so full. And I did that and the community -- it’s largely been about the education process of the community. What is green and what does it mean to rebuild green? What does it mean to be the model green city in America? I mean, it’s a pretty ambitious undertaking.
So there was a lot of interviewing done, a lot of listening, a lot of sharing of ideas and getting a sense of what would make people in this community really make this initiative their own, because if it was something that was being hoisted upon them from outside the community, that wasn’t going to work. That would not be sustainable.
It had to be something they really felt passion about and invested in. and, again, that was really achieved by a lot of interviewing and a lot of listening and crafting something that these people are now very excited about. When you come to visit Greensburg, Kansas, you really get a sense that something special is happening here. And these people are indeed on the cutting edge of sustainable building.
Sean Daily: So, tell us; what would people see if they came to visit Greensburg, Kansas?
Daniel Wallach: Well, right now what you’d see it’s still striking in the barrenness of the land. The trees were stripped of everything. So those that survived look very kind of surreal; looks like a very different landscape. But there now are over 150 houses that have been built or being built. A number of them built to exemplary energy efficiency and sustainably designed standards.
On the commercial and municipal side there are 30 buildings going up; everything from churches to City Hall that are being built, many of them to meet certification standards and so all that is very exciting. And there’s a comprehensive master plan that's laid out that shows everything from the walking paths and biking trails and the downtown streetscape design. Everything is being built with sustainability in mind.
So, that plan actually is a treat for those of us who have studied sustainability to see what is going to be in the town in the future. But if you come to town now, again you see a lot of you know, hundreds of thousands of pounds, tons of debris have been removed and you’re literally seeing this blank slate coming up from the ashes.
Sean Daily: Mm-hmm. OK. So, you’re sort of really as we speak, as we’re recording this interview, you’re really just in sort of it sounds like the baby steps of the actual rebuilding process.
Daniel Wallach: Yes, there are a number of buildings again that you can see in process and see that what a sustainable design looks like. But very little has been actually completed yet.
Sean Daily: I see. And the residents in the town -- I’m just curious -- how many are still living in the community and how many have moved out and are sort of waiting to come back?
Daniel Wallach: You know, pre-storm there were about 1400 in town and now there’s about 800. And the folks, most of the folks that left were elderly and just did not have the energy to rebuild. But just about everybody else… I mean, a large percentage of the folks are back and committed to rebuilding and either have rebuilt their homes or in the process of doing so.
Sean Daily: Do you feel that this whole situation which occurred here -- is this something that America should be paying attention to as a whole? I mean, it’s obvious a very small community of less than a thousand people and it’s for certain tragic that this happened. But why do you feel like this is a really important thing for people do be paying attention to nationwide?
Daniel Wallach: You know, it is a, I think a really significant development in this country because well, you know, first of all politically it’s a very conservative town, 81% registered Republicans. And the environmental movement itself has been really deeply politicized and that has caused a large motion in this country not to be involved in it.
And in fact, that was our biggest challenge going on in is people did not want to be identified with a political agenda. And we helped kind of demystify it and help people understand that the environment is not a political issue. You know, the air we breathe is, we all breathe it. The water we drink, we all drink it. You know, people clean up their houses and yards and they don’t think of that as an environmental issue. They don’t sit in the garage with the car running. That’s not an environmental issue, it’s just common sense.
And so it’s getting this demographic both to understand that and more importantly to take a lead in problem-solving. You know, these are farmers and ranchers, are innovators. They are by nature problem solvers. And so bring them into this discussion, into this issue, I think is a tremendous benefit to this country.
And then other rural communities, who really -- don’t really care what’s happening in the Northeast or in California, take note in a different way when it’s happening in very conservative Kansas. So, all of that I think is significant. And politicians, I think, are taking note as well.
But again a conservative area and the task has been rather unconcerned or and sometimes hostile toward environmental issues are now saying, “Wait a minute. You know, energy independence -- that’s something we care about.” A lot of these folks make their living off of the land so they’re very concerned about climate change and what’s happening there.
So, that’s why it’s all, I think, really significant what’s happening here. And we have found that the comeback of this community has struck such a chord by anybody who’s concerned about what’s happening in the environment and about the problem-solving aspect of it, that they’re fascinated about this town that you know was dealt this blow and how their coming back and how their dealing with some of these issues and in fact taking a lead.
Sean Daily: Yeah, it’s inspiring, I have to say. And I agree with you 100% about the politicization. You know, it makes no more sense for environmental issues to be associated with a particular party than it does in this case the environmental movement being associated with being democratic than it does for fiscal issues or fiscal --let’s see -- I guess, aptitude -- to be associated with the Republican Party. I mean, we all need to be fiscally responsible and that gets associated sort of with more on the Rightwing and so these issues do affect all of us. So I agree with you 100% on that.
Well, that’s fascinating. I want to come back -- I have a couple more questions for you. We’re going to take one more break and then we will be back with Daniel Wallach who is the director of the Greensburg Greentown Organization. We’ll be right back on GreenTalk Radio.
Sean Daily: This is Sean Daily. We’re back on GreenTalk Radio. And we’re talking to Daniel Wallach, who is the director of Greensburg Greentown of Greensburg, Kansas, the city that was leveled in the May 2007 tornado.
Daniel, before the break we were talking about you know, the plans for the city, where it’s at. We were talking about the fact that this is really not -- should not be a politicized issue. I’m curious about how can people and how can companies that are involved in green sustainable products be helping Greensburg right now?
Because it sounds like you guys are in the middle of this process and that you’re still needing help, probably financially and otherwise. How can people out there help you guys?
Daniel Wallach: Yeah, well thank you for asking. And it is -- you know the people in town are, they don’t want to be identified as victims and you know with their hand out for charity. That’s real clear. The tornado, as they say here, the tornado is history. And that’s more ways than one.
And they are very, very positive about the future. And they -- we’ve kind of conceptualized the town as a Living Science Museum. That this is going to be a place for people around the world including media to come and tell the story is the same as sustainable design in green living. And there’s this, you know, this pretty tidy little model -- this microcosm of American town where all of these things can be demonstrated and displayed.
And so we have a number of corporations that are -- have a presence in town -- and showing their wares. And one example is we have a toilet company out of -- it’s actually out of Australia -- but it’s now in North America called Caroma.
Sean Daily: Not to be confused with Corona the beer. [laughs] Caroma, is that…? [laughs]
Daniel Wallach: No, no, Caroma with an M at the end.
Sean Daily: Got it.
Daniel Wallach: Caroma. And like I say, it’s an Australian plumbing fixture company. And they developed a dual flush toilet which is a state-of-the-art product that uses very little water and it’s a very high functioning product. In other words, it performs very well.
And they donated 400 of those toilets to town. And that is helping both the residents come back, but it’s also giving Caroma a place to showcase their wares. And as the world comes to see what Greensburg is about, they’re going to see that product demonstrated here. And you know residents are using them so they’ll be able to talk about their experiences. And…
Sean Daily: Hopefully not in too much detail in this case. [laughs] I get where you’re going with that, yes.
Daniel Wallach: Exactly, exactly. Well, you know it is something everybody has one, so…
Sean Daily: That’s right. And it’s interesting that in this case they’ve covered about 1/3 of the town with actually that donation which is very generous of them so, that’s quite something.
Daniel Wallach: They’re cute. You know, it’s a $120,000 retail donation to the town. But more than that you know, it’s, I mean they did it because it’s the right thing to do. But it’s also -- it’s a very savvy kind of advertising. You know, because there is so many eyes on Greensburg and what’s happening.
And we’re able to tell the story of what we’re doing in this town with products like that. And for example, those 400 toilets, we’ve calculated will save between 5 and 10 million gallons of water a year.
Sean Daily: Wow.
Daniel Wallach: Over what the pre-storm toilets were using.
Sean Daily: And that’s only 400 of them. And that’s amazing.
Daniel Wallach: Exactly, exactly. And we’ve got a company, Evolve Showerheads; the same thing; a low-flow showerhead with a new technology, a very interesting product. And they distributed to everybody in town. And again, it’s a great gift to the community and it’s also helping Evolve -- a small company -- kind of tell their story and so those are the kinds of things we’re doing with companies.
And individuals can go to GreensburgGreentown.org and learn all about our organization and if they want to contribute we’re a charitable organization. We need to help realize this vision. And then volunteers, we’re always looking for volunteers that want to get involved as well.
Sean Daily: Great. And so people can contact your organization if they are interested in volunteering to help?
Daniel Wallach: Yep. At GreensburgGreentown.org they can find all of that information and let me know and we’ll get them hooked in.
Sean Daily: OK. And I’m going to spell that so people know. It’s Greensburg, B-U-R-G, Greentown.org; so, GreensburgGreentown.org.
Daniel Wallach: You got it.
Sean Daily: OK. Well my guest today has been Daniel Wallach. He’s the director of Greensburg Greentown. It’s an organization that’s helping the city of Greensburg, Kansas rebuild after a devastating tornado. And rebuild in a green and sustainable fashion.
Daniel, thank you so much for being on the program. And this is a very inspiring story. We wish you much luck in rebuilding a town and as well as the endeavors in helping the community rebuild in a green fashion. Thanks for coming on and sharing your story with our listeners today.
Daniel Wallach: Thank you so much. We really appreciate it.
Sean Daily: Thanks as always to everyone listening in today. Remember for more free on-demand podcasts, articles, videos and other information related to living a greener lifestyle, visit our website at www.greenlivingideas.com. We’d also love to hear your comments, feedback and questions. Send us an email at [email protected].
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