- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

At about 9:25 p.m. on May 4, 2007, the tornado siren in Greensburg, Kan., sounded its warning. Most of the city’s 1,574 people probably didn’t pay much attention, given how common tornadoes are in the state.

This one was different, however. At 9:45 p.m., an F-5 tornado arrived in full force. The funnel had a footprint 1.7 miles wide - wider than the city itself - and winds up to 205 mph, the highest ever recorded. Once the storm had finished its work, 11 people had died, 95 percent of the city had been leveled, and fewer than a dozen homes were left standing. Hardly any walls were standing, and most people had lost all of their material possessions. Virtually all of the local businesses had been destroyed.

The city, which had been named for D.R. “Cannonball” Green, a stagecoach company owner who had helped to form the city, faced an existential question: Should we rebuild at all? Some could say it was a dying place with a dwindling population, scarce jobs and generations of high school graduates fleeing to bigger cities.

But something remarkable happened in the wake of the maelstrom. In a large circus tent set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency outside of town, an intrepid group of survivors hatched a plan to rebuild their home as the greenest city in America - the most environmentally sustainable and energy-efficient in the nation. The goal is to power the city with 100 percent renewable energy and attract a booming green trade that will be the envy of the world.

Several months after the twister hit, the city council approved an unprecedented and historic plan that would have all public buildings conform to the platinum rating of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, the holy grail of such ratings.

In the wake of the storm, Daniel Wallach, a Denver native who had moved to Kansas in 2003, formed a grass-roots, community-based nonprofit, Greensburg GreenTown, that leads this initiative via programs, technical assistance, energy rating certification and education. Given the city’s ethos, residents took a pragmatic approach: It wasn’t about advocacy or ideology but practicality and even survival - about reducing waste, saving on fuel bills (the city church’s heating bills were $1,000 per month) and creating green jobs.

Nearly two years after the tornado, Greensburg’s new homes are up to 50 percent more energy-efficient thanks to energy-efficient windows and appliances, better insulation, efficient heating, low-flow toilets and more. A dozen model eco-homes are being built. The Greensburg arts center is one of just 125 LEED platinum buildings in the world, and several more such buildings are in the works, including the new city hall, school and hospital.

According to Michelle Moore of the green council, Greensburg represents “the greatest commitment to green building anywhere in the U.S. … pound for pound, Greensburg is the greenest city in America.”

The municipality has attracted the attention of the likes of actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the Discovery Channel, General Motors Corp. and Google. Mr. Wallach marvels at how the city was able to move forward with a renewed sense of purpose, responding to unspeakable adversity with an enterprising spirit.

Of course, Greensburg isn’t the only city aggressively going green, and it isn’t the only one to do so in the wake of adversity. (Malmo, a city on the southern tip of Sweden, went green after a devastating recession nearly wiped out its industrial base.) Nevertheless, it’s remarkable to see Greensburg reborn with such a bold and promising vision in the wake of such tragedy.

Greensburg residents are pioneers of the emerging green economy, all in one of the reddest states. As we approach the two-year anniversary of this disaster, we have much to learn from these folks about not only surviving, but thriving in the 21st century.

• Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, a personal leadership development firm. They can be reached at [email protected] lifeentrepreneurs.com.

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