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Greensburg, Kansas: From Green-town to Clean-town

After a tornado destroyed 95% of the town, Greensburg, Kansas reinvented itself by striving to become the greenest community imaginable.
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"There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home"

It seems like natural and man-made disasters have become a common occurrence in the first decade of the new millennium. Of course, the tragic attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, killing 3,000 people would fall into the man-made category. And Hurricane Katrina and the breach in 50 drainage and navigational levees was both a natural disaster and the worst engineering disaster in the history of the United States, ravaging New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi. Katrina was soon followed by Hurricane Rita the strongest hurricane of 2005, but also the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico.

The tsunami in the Indian Ocean that struck Indonesia came without warning and flooded nearly an entire island with the power of 23,000 atomic bombs, killing 200,000 people. A 7.9 magnitude earthquake in the Sichuan province of China in 2008 killed 70,000 people, and in January a 7.0 earthquake tore through an already crumbling Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, affecting 3 million people, killing 230,000, and leaving the 380,000 orphans with even less hope than ever before.

And just last week, the second of two volcanoes in Iceland in just one month spewed a 5.3 mile high plume of ash halting tourist and business flights to and from the EU, but also put the shipping of commercial perishables (flowers, fruit, vegetables, etc.) at a standstill, wilting and rotting. So the volcano eruption's effect on the global economy cannot yet be measured. These are just the few disasters that easily came to mind. As horrible as each was, the 24-hour news cycle refused to let us forget one until the next hit. All have made headlines, and left a lasting impression on the victims and survivors, and many of those that want to help have fallen into donor fatigue.

One natural disaster, the most powerful of which occurred in the U.S., that garnered little press internationally but nonetheless was overwhelming to those that lived through it, was the EF5 tornado in the Southwest corner of Kansas on May 4, 2007. The EF scale (Enhanced Fujita) was used for the first time in 1971 when parts of central Florida were struck by multiple tornadoes, the strongest of which were rated at EF3 on the new scale. The first time the highest assessment of an EF5 tornado was used was for the twister that destroyed 95% of the town of Greensburg, Kansas, killing 11 people. The winds reached over 205 mph, peeled roofs off building after building before flattening the structures to rubble, made cars fly through the air as if they were plastic bags in a breeze, sent farm equipment soaring from the farms into town shattering storefronts, leaving mass destruction in its wake; all of which left the town's population devastated and unsure of what to do to rebuild their lives.

Many who live there lost every material possession they had, from their homes and cars to family photo albums and other heirlooms. But the nearly 1,400 people who live in Greensburg quickly regrouped and took on the daunting task of rebuilding their town from scratch and reinventing it by striving to become the greenest community imaginable -- after all, green was already in their name.

In the three-year aftermath of their disaster, Greensburg, Kansas was and still is becoming a national model for environmentally conscious living because of the town's fervent commitment to rebuild sustainably with energy-efficient and environmentally-thoughtful features and eco-friendly infrastructures. They are attempting groundbreaking and innovative ways to go green such as adding ground-source heating and cooling systems to new steel-reinforced concrete construction, solar hot water, rooftop vegetable gardens, wind turbines to generate electrical power and lights that don't require electricity, all of which are expected to save local businesses and homeowners an estimated $25,000 a year in energy costs.

Celebratory and commemorative events from April 30th through May 2nd, 2010 will mark the third anniversary of the 2007 tornado, and I'm privileged and honored to be but a small part of it. The OneCleanWorld Foundation has donated 500 copies of my first book Clean: The Humble Art of Zen-Cleansing to Greensburg/GreenTown to distribute to every household and local business, and in June I'll be flying out for a book-signing but more importantly, to give a presentation on how to keep their LEED-certified green buildings green by cleaning "cleanly" without using any of the toxins or pollutants found in most commercial cleaners. A green town deserves a way to clean green that won't introduce contaminants and impurities into the indoor and outdoor eco-environments they've so carefully erected. (My MyKindOfClean series of books are user-friendly and easy to follow, and all my recipes for "clean" green cleaning rely exclusively on only five natural ingredients: baking soda, salt, borax, white vinegar, and lemons.)

The Memorial Day weekend, however, will be a time for the community to stop, reflect, pay tribute to the past, feel grateful for the present, and plan for the future. The residents of Greensburg are very happy to have a downtown again, and the grand opening of the new hospital in March was huge and proved to be a proud moment for them all. Once the new school opens in August, the basic infrastructure will pretty much be in place. Roads are being paved, trees are being planted, and new small businesses are opening or re-opening.

There is a great deal of fundraising going on for future projects as well, such as the Twilight Theatre (a movie house that will do double-duty as the school's auditorium), the Kiowa County Commons (to house the public library, historical society, and state-of-the-art media center), the Big Well Museum (designed by Ralph Appelbaum, BNIM and Project Explore), and GreenTown's second Eco-Home, the Meadowlark House (built based on the winning design from a worldwide architecture competition that will be constructed from highly sustainable German technology).

The city continues to work hard to attract green industry to town. Citizens have formed Greensburg 2020, in an effort to build the population to 2,020 in ten years. Further, a new group called the Spirit of Greensburg Committee has formed whose mission is to bring big musical acts to town to raise money for underfunded projects -- the first act will be country music legend George Jones in concert on the anniversary weekend.

It's taken literally thousands of individuals and hundreds of companies, however, to have made the rebuild possible. Volunteers (from churches, colleges, high schools, civic groups, etc.) gave and are still giving their blood, sweat and tears; and federal, state, and local governmental entities (including USDA-Rural Development, National Renewable Energy Lab -- a program of the U.S. Department of Energy, FEMA, Kansas Housing Resources Corporation, and the Kansas Governor's Office) have issued grants for the rebuild.

Private foundations (e.g. Schmidt/Manlier Family) and an astounding number of corporations such as AT&T, Sun Chips, Kodak, Clorox, Office Depot, the Big Green Box, Sears, Mother Earth News, Discovery Communications, Natural Home magazine, Honda, and General Motors) along with smaller green-tech businesses such as Caroma USA, Viega, PF Waterworks, TADgreen Inc., and Bauer Power, as well as private individuals (most notably Leonardo DiCaprio) have donated much of the capital needed to undertake this monumental project. Further, Kiowa County United, a not-for-profit organization started by a group of local business owners raised over $1 million and built the retail center with nine stores as well as a prototype for an affordable green building.

On the anniversary weekend, at the grand opening of the Silo Eco-Home, my Clean book will also be distributed in the Green Visitors Center. The OneCleanWorld Foundation (OCWF) is eagerly participating in Greensburg's third Anniversary Weekend activities because it strongly supports the town's decision to re-invent itself as a green, eco-friendly and sustainable community. The purpose of the OneCleanWorld Foundation is to support, raise awareness of, and encourage eco- and sustainability projects in the United States and abroad through grants, technical assistance and/or micro-financing in the areas of education and outreach, advocacy and public health, and building or enhancing green economies and infrastructures.

In the press release announcing the gift, Richard Haymes, OCW Foundation's founder remarked, "The OneCleanWorld Foundation supports the eco-innovations of Greensburg and joins with those who made it all possible...we commend the people of Greensburg, Kansas for their grit and determination to overcome a terrible tragedy, their foresight to rebuild with green dwellings and green industry, for their growing green economy, and for their mindful rebuilding of their basic infrastructure."

For the sake of full disclosure, I'm a sustaining member of the OneCleanWorld Foundation and sit on the board of directors. A portion of the royalties from sales of my MyKindOfClean series of books (sustainably printed by Sterling Publishing, New York/London) endows OCWF in perpetuity.

Again, the OneCleanWorld Foundation and I commend the people of Greensburg, Kansas for their true courage and determination to overcome their tragedy, their foresight to rebuild with truly green dwellings and public spaces, to attract green industries, to encourage their growing green economy, for their mindful rebuilding of their basic infrastructure, and for being a living example of what can be achieved when we take that leap into environmental sustainability.

Like the immortal character Dorothy Gale from Kansas in the children's classic The Wizard of Oz learned, there's no place like home. Bravo Greensburg!

To make a tax-deductible donation to the OneCleanWorld Foundation, please send your gift to: OCWF, 232A Fourth Street, 2nd floor, Jersey City, NJ 07302 or contact

To make a tax-deductible donation to Greensburg/GreenTown, visit their website at

To purchase any of the MyKindOfClean books that support OCWF, visit B& and Amazon.