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Greensburg: An Eco 9/11

Greensburg, with everything that once stood there now destroyed in the aftermath of the most violent twister ever, has transformed into a model town for everything eco, green and sustainable.
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As I walked through the East Village on that bright and otherwise beautiful morning of September 11th, I recall watching in horror as the second plane collided into the World Trade Center tower. Looking back, as I now well know, living though any monumental disaster comes with its psychological consequences. Just ask the folks who lived through the Pentagon attacks, the hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the tsunami in Indonesia, the earthquakes in the Sichuan province of China and more recently in Haiti, the volcanoes in Iceland, and the strongest tornado ever recorded that all but erased Greensburg, Kansas, and I'm certain they, too, will all agree. In the blink of an eye, everything is irreversibly changed.

And while the scars of any one tragedy may seem barely healed, it's easy to forget one disaster and everything that it once entailed when the next one happens so quickly on the tail of the last. In our world of endless media attention and sound-bites, and images of newscasters posing before blue-screens, disasters just mind-numbingly seem to come and go with little or no consideration for their survivors; the living and breathing individuals in the wake of a catastrophe from which they are left to pick up the proverbial pieces.

The rebuilding of something (anything!) at the World Trade Center site is still consuming millions of dollars, has withstood numerous plan alterations, been the object of political football or hot-potato games, then even more re-conceptualizing, as well as agonizing frustration for community and survivors who demanded that their input be heard. And after almost nine years of indecision, there is now physical evidence climbing taller than the barriers surrounding the site of Ground Zero, of the wasteful monstrosity now being erected where the iconic towers once stood.

In sharp contrast, after their misfortune, the folks of Greensburg, Kansas pretty quickly and unanimously chose to modestly rebuild their entire town in a mindful and thoughtful manner. Little Greensburg, with everything that once stood there now destroyed and laying in ruins in the aftermath of the most violent twister ever, has transformed its small municipality into a model town that represents an ongoing living laboratory for everything eco, green and sustainable. (With a name as green as Greensburg, what were their options?)

I lived in Manhattan just a few blocks away from where the World Trade Center attacks occurred, and for months I carried with me a morose and gloom-and-doom feeling until those feelings turned to outrage and anger when the Bush/Cheney Gang waged a preemptive war by exploiting me and my fellow Americans' genuine fears and insecurities. In contrast, and perhaps because of my physical distance from it, my affinity for the environment and environmental innovations has made me especially fascinated by, fond of and interested in Greensburg, Kansas and their post-catastrophic decisions. (I don't know how differently I might be feeling had I walked out of my basement only to discover everything but the foundation to my house gone, and that everything I knew and loved had been blown away or so destroyed that no landmarks existed that could help me get my bearings.)

Without a doubt, for those that survived the 9/11 attacks and those that lost loved ones that day, their lives have been unalterably changed forever; however, although harmed and forever scarred, New York City, its boroughs, neighborhoods, communities and infrastructures for the most part still operated. If the attack on the towers could be compared to a cancerous tumor, it was malignant but had not metastasized. And while in a way we all "survived" the attacks, and had our own versions of PTSD, life continued pretty much as usual within just a few weeks. In comparison, instead of being simply inconvenienced by re-routed subway lines, the residents of Greensburg Kansas lost everything. They lost 11 residents, their government buildings, schools and places of worship, shopping establishments, restaurants, playgrounds, historical landmarks, streets and roads, century-old trees and most importantly, their homes and every possession within them. They lost e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.

As part of the commemorative events that marked the third anniversary of the 2007 tornado and the town's progress-to-date, I was invited as an eco-cleaning maven, along with my partner Richard (who has done a great deal of research into the negative and toxic effects of commercial household cleaners), and our dog, Emerson (a Cairn Terrier just like Toto who also came from Kansas! -- can it get any gayer?!) to visit the town of Greensburg to give presentations. (To refresh your memory, the OneCleanWorld Foundation donated 600 copies of my first book Clean: The Humble Art of Zen-Cleansing to Greensburg/GreenTown to be distributed to every household and local business.)

While there, we gave presentations on the physical and neurological health risks to adults (especially women), children and pets associated with ordinary commercial cleaners, and how the townspeople can keep their "green" LEED-certified buildings really green by demonstrating cleaning techniques that use only the natural ingredients of baking soda, borax, lemons, salt, and white vinegar.

While in Greensburg, not only did I explain and demonstrate how to safely clean using the local coffee shop's bathroom and various appliances and surfaces of the state-of-the-art GreenTown Eco-Silo Home, (which also serves as GreenTown's offices and a visitors' information center) we also stayed in the guest quarters. As part of their green initiative and to additionally avoid potential devastation from future tornadoes, the first Eco-Silo Home was built to withstand winds in excess of 200 mph -- the average force of an EF5 tornado.

Through the generosity of some major corporations as well as smaller, yet highly innovative eco-entrepreneurs -- too many to list here, the Eco-Silo Home was constructed, "infrastructured," decorated and landscaped with interesting, sustainable, eco-friendly yet luxurious materials and products. Doubling as a living science museum and lodge for visitors, the home which combines repurposed materials and some of the finest examples of modernism in this century to-date, is additionally intended as the first in a line of new construction which will continue to showcase the newest, best and greenest techniques, practices and materials for Sustainism available at their time of construction, and to hopefully become the centerpiece of Greensburg's growing eco-tourism trade.

Established to raise funds, provide resources, disseminate information and offer support to rebuild Greensburg as a model international green community, Daniel Wallach, Executive Director of the nonprofit organization Greensburg/GreenTown and his partner, Program Director Catherine Hart, along with Site Manager Ruth Ann Wedel, and Project Managers Joah Bussert and Stephanie Peterson were our willing tour guides and impeccable hosts.

As Greensburg's new public and private buildings (including eco-efficient low and middle income housing) were completed, the residents witnessed the doublewide trailers that temporarily housed city offices and businesses and even served as the hospital disappear to reveal the new, hip and modern architectural interpretations for their City Hall, public works facility and the Kiowa County Memorial Hospital. Lest I forget, private enterprises, both big and small, that now line the newly yet partially re-constructed streets of "downtown," that include an ingenious sewage and rain run-off system, are the Centera Bank, the John Deere Dealership, the Green Bean Coffee Co., Fleener's Furniture, The Last Tangle Beauty Shop, Starla's Stitch & Frame, a funeral home, a teen center, a motel and public park among other projects, including a brilliant building constructed with funds from Sun Chips to incubate new eco- and sustainable entrepreneurial start-ups. And the new Greensburg High School will be completed in August for its first graduating classes of 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 as well.

Moreover, with the breeze symbolizing a metaphor for change, to collect the energy present from the almost constant 17-mile-an-hour Kansas winds, off in the distance is the new wind farm with turbines that continuously spin like beautiful pin-wheels in the sky, generating electricity for the town.

But despite the new construction, financial and emotional support and infectious enthusiasm and optimism, evidence of the tornado remains peppered in and around the small town of Greensburg. Still remaining are the constant reminders of the devastation left behind; trees left in branchless tangles, roofless shambles of hand-laid stone foundations of once century-old structures, empty weed-filled lots, the constant traffic and beeping of backhoes, and the bare slab foundations of what were once homes but now have only haunting stairways leading down to what were once basements that, luckily, saved the lives of many local residents.

It took literally thousands of individuals and hundreds of companies and a lot of government aid to make the rebuilding of Greensburg possible. Yet despite the eco-improvements, the scars of their tragedies now and again, momentarily appear to offer a glimpse into the terrifying psychological consequences that surviving one of the worst natural disasters in history entail.

Notwithstanding all the innovations and sensitive consideration for the environment, Greensburg, in my opinion, may still be best defined by the interesting cross-culture of its thankful, grateful, gracious and considerate survivors. Many thanks to the residents of Greensburg, Kansas and the staff of GreenTown for having my partner and me as your guests. Seeing your town rise from the tangled debris and mind-numbing tragedy to become an international environmental inspiration for this and future generations was awe inspiring and humbling for us both.

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