Starting again: what Greensburg Kansas can teach Fort McMurray

Greensburg devastated when a 1.7 mile (2.7 km) EF-5 tormado hit the town dead center
Public Domain BigWell Museum, Greensburg, Kansas

Earlier this year, my path wandered through Greensburg, Kansas. I have to admit here that I am the type of nerd lured by the "World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well."

The news of an EF-5 tornado devastating this Kansas town didn't enter our recall loops until we were checking into a local hotel, one with particularly "green" credentials, including its own windmill. Today, Greensburg merits a visit as much for how they have rebuilt after devastation as for the Big Well Museum, which now documents the history of the town in the "before" and "after" eras.

Now, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surveys the damage to Fort McMurray, Alberta, promising help to rebuild, the lessons of Greensburg flood back.

Thankfulness in the face of disaster

Like Fort McMurray, the death toll in Greensburg could have been much worse. In the end, 11 deaths were attributed to the tornado. Early warning systems made the difference. While it may be hard for those who have lost all their material things, including treasured memories, Justin Trudeau captured the reality that the immediate emergency evacuation avoided the truly tragic toll that might have occurred:
"There was a moment where we saw on the sidewalk a little child’s plastic scooter. The firefighters and first responders said ‘nobody’s touched that since the evacuation.’ That little plastic scooter – whatever little boy or girl was using that just before the evacuation – they’re safe. They’re alive.”

Rebuilding a more sustainable community

In Greensburg, planning preceded rebuilding. The community engaged consultants known for attention to sustainablity and focused on
  • Green home and business certification programs;
  • LEED standards for municipal buildings;
  • Renewable energy infrastructure; and
  • A comprehensive sustainable master plan, among other things.

Rebuilding offers a unique opportunity to step back and ask how we want to build, an advantage over the business-as-usual rolling development. As Greensburg once owed its fame to a well dug deep enough to tap a now receding aquifer, Fort McMurray owes its boom to the oil sands, a resource that presents obvious sustainability issues. Clever planning now can prepare the community to grow and thrive when the oil economy starts to fade.

Unintended consequences

The other lesson offered by Greensburg might help Fort McMurray to rebuild better as well. If you talk to locals in Greensburg, you hear a common refrain: they love how their town has been rebuilt and the commitment to the future that represents, but they remark that a lot of the original residents did not return. Although a lot of people may have simply moved on, the cost of property, increased by the demands of sustainable building codes, carries a lot of the blame. Balancing the support for current residents with the costs of the sustainable planning needs as much care as the rebuilding plan itself.

Our hearts go out to those affected by this most recent disaster, and we wish them the best of luck and strength of human spirit as they proceed to rebuild their lives for the new era "after" the wildfires. May they renew their treasures and may the future be brighter than ever.

The Big Well, Greensburg, Kansas

Starting again: what Greensburg Kansas can teach Fort McMurray
Natural disasters wreak havoc with people's lives, but leave a testament to the resiliency of human spirit

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