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May 7, 2014

Town rebuilds with clean energy

GREENSBURG, Kan. — After a mammoth tornado wiped out most of this rural Kansas community in 2007, supporters of clean energy in the state seized on an unusual opportunity to rebuild a town from the ground up with the latest green technology.

They came up with a sustainable-power dreamscape: wind turbines to power hundreds of homes, futuristic buildings with environmentally friendly features and a gleaming new school that runs on less than half the water of its flattened predecessor.

But the much-publicized reimagining of Greensburg has failed to provide what it needs the most: people. The storm sent half the town packing, its fierce winds accelerating an exodus from rural Kansas that had been underway for decades.

Those who stayed now acknowledge that the reborn town is serving a population of only about 800 and is still looking for answers.

“Prior to the storm, we were a small Kansas community struggling to maintain and grow,” said Sue Greenleaf-Taylor, the city’s economic development director. “Now we are a small Kansas community which had a tornado struggling to maintain and grow.”

Greensburg’s economy, like much of rural Kansas, depends on the agriculture, oil and gas industries, where production advances have reduced the need for labor. The green building materials and bio-energy industries city leaders had hoped to entice never materialized.

The tornado that remade Greensburg, which is about 100 miles west of Wichita, was nearly two miles wide with winds topping 200 mph. It scraped most of the houses and the three-block business district to their foundations. At least 12 people died, and many predicted the town of nearly 1,500 would simply cease to exist.

But local leaders were enthralled by an idea proposed by then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and other clean-energy proponents, who saw a blank slate on which to create a better place. The Kansas prairie offered plentiful sunshine and powerful winds to provide power.

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