The TH Interview: Bob Dixson, Mayor of Greensburg
TreeHugger: You actually were not yet mayor when the tornado struck, so what were the first things that went through your mind as an ordinary citizen after the disaster?
Bob Dixson: Well just get stuff cleaned up. Concentrate on your own property and helping your neighbors and just get cleaned up and go from there. We didn't really get an idea of what we had until we got stuff moved away, with just piles of debris all over.
TH: And what did you believe were the most pressing issues facing Greensburg the day before the tornado?
BD: I think over the years our most valuable resource that we've exported is our youth. They've been heading elsewhere to find employment. So the question has been, "How do we encourage and get businesses to come and offer employment to our younger generation and keep them in the county and town?"
TH: And where did environmental sustainability fit into the overall picture of Greensburg?
BD: Well we were pretty stable as far as any new construction; so any new homes were few and far between. We were starting to replace windows as were people all over town; looking at insulation in their attics and sidewalls and trying to improve as much as they could with weather stripping and so on. We were just going right down the list, and those were thinks you had to work around in the 60- 80 year old homes we had. People were replacing appliances, fixtures, going to energy star stuff and fluorescent lighting. We were doing it but we just weren't able to start from the ground up.
TH: So what led to the desire of the townspeople to rebuild green?
BD: I think several things have contributed to it. Number one is that we've all been called to be good stewards of what the lord has blessed us with, and that's just naturally going green because we've all become aware that the fossil fuel resources are running out. So we've lessened our use of fossil fuels and cut utility bills; sometimes without spending a tremendous amount of money by 30, 40, even 50 percent.
In rural America we are the original recyclers and our forefathers and pioneers knew the advantages of passive solar heat with their animals and homes, and geothermal energy as well, using it through dugouts and cellars with root crops. They were aware of all that technology generations ago. So that's where we go back to as our roots; take care of the land because it takes care of you.
And being close to nature has also really spurred us on now that we've had the opportunity to rebuild from scratch.
TH: What's that been like?
BD: It' a daunting task; especially with the cost of construction with all kinds of building materials right now. We had sticker shock. None of us has ever built a new house, so we didn't have a clue what those things cost.
So number one was deciding, "What am I going to do?" We had no house, shrubs, or anything, so we had to clear it and then decide "Am I going to live here the rest of my life?", "What can I afford?", "What can I do within my budget?" If you take a graph and come up from bottom with money invested to be efficient by building green and come down from right with energy savings, at some point those lines are going to cross where investment cost and savings meet at the sweet spot. If it was an unlimited budget we could build all kinds of beautiful 'no energy' homes essentially. So you have to weigh the budget you're on. And people are doing the best that they can with all kinds of resources that have been made available to us of what we can use as building products to assist us in becoming better stewards of what we've been blessed with. We're leaving a legacy for future generations. We're asking ourselves, "What are we leaving them?"
TH: What's it been like having the show filmed for Planet Green while you're rebuilding?
BD: Well in a way we've been busy enough that they've been part of the landscape and part of our lives. We just keep moving on. And it's been a little challenging because they're documenting a story, but they have just done such a great job and worked behind the scenes and became part of us.
TH: And the President is set to attend the high school graduation on May 4th (Today). What do you expect those kids will take away from the experience?
BD: President Bush was here just several weeks after the tornado as well, and he is unable to run for re-election so it's not a political move. I think that truly, from the heart, he wanted to be here. He's a man that's genuine; and the compassion we have had from the national level on down from the Presidency, Senators, and so on. I think it's another case of seeing someone cares. They see these youth making a difference and encourage them to keep on doing so. They eyes of the world are on us, and they're seeing how we are reacting to total devastation.
TH: What role have the kids played in that response?
BD: I just can't say enough about them. They've had no school to attend and they got a temporary school going right way; a practice gym up right way that also serves as a meeting facility, and those kids have survived the ordeal of losing everything they ever knew in their life that was stable. Some of them even lost loved ones in the tornado. So what they've contributed is they have a green club that they've formed and are in the process of encouraging people and becoming more cognizant and aware of what being stewards of our Earth is all about. And they're also excited about the prospect of discovering, "What can we do to encourage businesses to come to Greensburg so that when we come home from college we can come home?"
TH: So what are some of your favorite green features in the new town?
BD: I just find that the application of wind and solar, whether it's solar panels or passive solar heat and geothermal, to be totally fascinating. And the different improvements with the insulation of windows and doors that we have now are incredible as well. Sometimes you don't have to make a tremendous investment to make significant improvements.
I think we're all painfully aware the fossil fuel situation is one we need to wean ourselves off of because that resource has been pretty well drained.
You need to design your house to where in the next few years as you can afford it you can put things like solar on. We have a south facing roof which is terrific for it. And things like on-demand hot water heat, where for an extra 800-1000 bucks you can stop heating water around the clock when you don't need it, and the plumbing is almost identical. It takes just a couple years to get the money back.
TH: And if you could ask other mayors and just ordinary citizens across America to take one lesson from the experience you've had through all of this rebuilding effort, what might that be?
BD: I think number one is to encourage your citizens to check their insurance policies and know where they're at on that. And the other thing that is very, very important is not to jump into anything. We all wanted houses back right now. And when we have to make immediate, spur of the moment decisions sometimes we don't have all the information available to us yet so we've got to get away from the emotional part. Take a little time to see what you want that will make the most difference that you can make by going green.
Other mayors also need to look at if this happens in your town, "Do you have a contingency plan?" Especially for emergency preparedness, and if you have a major disaster what resources do you have to pull in to help you? And that can be a vast gamut of things but have those resource contacts. We in America, regardless of what some think, are still in it to help each other out. And that was truly evident after our tornado as people all over the US helped out through prayers, money, and time. That's what we as Americans do, and that's why we still live in the best country on the planet.
** The rebuilding of Greensburg, Kansas is the subject of an original series coming this summer on Planet Green **
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Image Credit: Planet Green