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Green Design: Q&A With Bob Dixson
Painting the Town Green
On May 4, 2007, a tornado devastated Greensburg, Kansas. In the disaster, citizens saw an opportunity to rebuild sustainably. Among the newly minted amenities are LED street lights, cisterns to collect rainwater for irrigation, and a nearly completed energy-saving City Hall. Audubon spoke with Mayor Bob Dixson about the twister that ultimately caused his town to turn for the better.
Audubon: You survived the tornado that leveled Greensburg. Can you tell us about that night?
Dixson: My wife and I had finished a week of work. It was Friday night, and so we were just having a relaxing evening getting ready for a spring weekend working out in the yard. Severe thunderstorms storms had started in the mid-afternoon.
Sirens went off about 9:10 p.m. We had about 20 to 25 minutes’ notice. Everybody scrambled for cover because we knew it was very serious. There were warnings all afternoon and early evening that this was really building big, and that there could be some very severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. In the midst of it all, I know we were led to go to the places that we were supposed to go to. We were very fortunate to have enough warning that people took heed.
At 9:40 the storm came right across town. It was an EF5 tornado [the highest ranking], with sustained winds over 200 miles per hour. It was 1.7 miles wide. The town is about 2 miles wide.
My wife and I went to our basement and got some area rugs that we pulled up over the top of our heads, and we crouched down between a chest-of-drawers and a desk. You could hear the debris. Then we remember hearing the windows exploding with the tremendous pressure of the storm. It was very loud. My wife said that to her, it sounded like standing right below a jet engine.
We started to feel like we were getting wet, and I said, “Well, we don’t have any roof left, honey.” We couldn’t track time. It seemed like forever, but yet it seemed quick. Time is relative. It depends on how you reflect.
Our house is a 1912 Victorian. It’s just gone.
Oh, we’re glad to be here talking with you.
What happened after the tornado passed?
I was able stand up and look 360 degrees around: No walls, no roof, nothing but debris and destruction. It was dark, probably about 10:00 p.m. It was a really eerie feeling because it was still lightning and you could see town. There were no houses or trees left. Our first thought was: Are we the only ones left? In minutes or less, people started coming out of storm shelters and basements, looking for their neighbors and helping everybody they could. Everybody lost everything. It didn’t matter what you had; everything was gone.
We have tremendous volunteer storm spotters that whenever the weather’s bad, they’re out. They had been tracking this storm for hours and some of those people saw it hit the town. They immediately radioed the area communities on their Emergency Management System, and the call did go out to bring all the body bags you’ve got because we thought it was that bad. Eleven were lost. We know the hand of God was on us or else we would have lost more. It was total devastation, like a bomb went off. As for the trees: What wasn’t ripped out of the ground was broken off, and just trunks were sticking up.
Was Greensburg struggling before the tornado hit?
We’re an agricultural community and the other major employers in the county are natural gas compressor booster stations. Those booster stations have employed a sizable amount of people through the years, and as automation has come online they haven’t replaced those jobs. But as a community we have been losing population because our youth got great educations when they left and didn’t come back because there wasn’t the jobs for it.
Now we’re seeing tremendous excitement for the age group of 40 and under. They want to be part of something exciting, sustainable, green, eco-friendly. The younger generation understands that, and the quality of life issues mean a lot to them. It’s not about just having stuff, it’s about quality of life. We’re seeing some influx of younger people back into the community.
We are also trying to get businesses that share our vision of being green and sustainable to come to town.
What made you decide to run for mayor?
The fall after the tornado, I was approached by a wide cross section of this community. As I was cleaning up my lot I had people coming by and asking if I would consider running for mayor.
I just wanted to make sure we were continuing down the path that was set before us, and not stray from that. It would have been easier to go out two miles from town and start all over in a vacant field. But this is our home, this is where we live, this is where our roots are, and that’s why we’re rebuilding.
What is your approach to rebuilding?
Our ancestors were pioneers that settled this Midwest, utilizing the resources that were available. We’ve known for a long time about being sustainable, and using the resources that are there. They were the original green people. It didn’t come from the East or West Coast. They were people who were good stewards of the environment, and those roots make it easier for us to understand when we talk about sustainability and conservationists. My ancestors lived in sod houses. They understood the wind and how to utilize it, they understood solar, and that the temperature of the ground as you go down maintains a stable 57–58 degrees Fahrenheit. They understood all that. Sometimes you have to take a step back and look at the past and how they did it, and use the technology today to improve upon it.
But at some point we also have to stop producing more stuff. We have to look at our consumption. And the time is now. We’re running out of natural resources. We’re polluting our water. We’re polluting our air. We found out after the storm, you can live on a whole lot less and still be just as happy.
Are you motivated by the threat of global warming?
When we’re talking about green and sustainable, it transcends politics. This is not a right or a left issue, a Democrat or Republican issue. It is the right, responsible, and prudent thing to do for future generations and the legacy that we’re going to be leaving those generations.
How much of the town has been rebuilt?
The look of the town is tremendously different. A wide variety of architecture and building styles have been implemented. Some of the structures to be rebuilt were the churches. Within six months we had a lot of building activity. The residential homes are 40 to 50 percent built back. City Hall is about 60 percent completed. Cisterns are collecting runoff water that will pump back runoff to irrigate native street plantings. We have a new school under construction, for completion in fall 2010, the new hospital is over half done.
County courthouse ribbon cutting will be mid-July. That facility was one of the two buildings left standing in the downtown area. It suffered roof damage and window loss, so all the inner walls were cleaned out.
In December 2007 the town passed an ordinance that all municipal buildings over 4,000 square feet would be certified LEED platinum [the US Green Building Council’s highest standard]. One of those buildings is a low-rent business incubator, where companies can spend about two to four years paying low rent and getting on their feet. The space is being rented now. We have a stained glass company, a massage therapist, a company that makes signs, a lawyer, an accountant, a therapist, and a Benjamin Moore paint store offering a green product line.
Are you going to be hooking Greensburg up to wind power?
We have been pursuing that and we’re getting closer to the agreement to certify our town as sustainable from total wind energy. Ten windmills would produce about 12.5 megawatts of energy, which is more than we need as a city. The rest will go on the grid. The windmills would be about four miles from town.
We are also the first community in the U.S. with all LED street lights, cutting 40 percent of what our energy costs were before the storm, 70 percent when you add in maintenance. We have little over 300 streetlights. We are lessening our carbon footprint by 40 tons of carbon dioxide a year. The LEDs have minimal light pollution. I can sit on my front porch with the streetlights on and see the stars.
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