Tom Eblen: After the tornado, West Liberty explores a 'green' recovery

After an EF-5 tornado leveled Greensburg, Kan., it embraced an energy-efficient rebuilding plan that has brought it worldwide attention.
After an EF-5 tornado leveled Greensburg, Kan., it embraced an energy-efficient rebuilding plan that has brought it worldwide attention. The Wichita Eagle

WEST LIBERTY — Kiowa County, Kan., where Daniel Wallach lives, is very different from Morgan County, Ky. For one thing, it is flat and dry, rather than hilly and green.

But when Wallach came here Tuesday, he saw much that made him feel at home: a conservative, tight-knit community; a town far from a major population center that has struggled economically for years; and people determined against all odds to rebuild after a monster tornado destroyed their beloved home.

The West Liberty Chamber of Commerce brought Wallach to town because he was a key player in the rebirth of Greensburg, Kan., where an EF-5 tornado leveled 95 percent of the town and killed 11 people on May 4, 2007.

Morgan County leaders wanted to hear about Greensburg's experience and see if some of its strategies could work here, where an EF-3 tornado March 2 devastated much of West Liberty and several rural communities, killing six people.

A week after Greensburg's tornado, Wallach submitted a paper to his town's leaders with an intriguing vision: rebuild Greensburg as a cutting-edge, energy-efficient town that not only would save money but attract tourists and worldwide media attention. It would be a living model of a sustainable small town of the future.

Greensburg still struggles, but its "green" strategy has paid off in spades. Tourists, civic leaders and journalists come to Greensburg from around the world to see 13 public buildings and many homes and businesses that were rebuilt with the latest energy-efficient designs and technology.

Greensburg residents who chose to rebuild "green" have seen huge reductions in their utility bills, Wallach said. Annual energy costs for the town's public buildings are about $200,000 less than they would have been with conventional construction, according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy.

"If we had not pursued this strategy," Wallach said, "I don't think the town would still be there."

Wallach heads Greensburg GreenTown, a non-profit that promotes the vision to other communities devastated by disaster. The group is currently assisting Joplin, Mo., where an EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011, killed 158 people and left a huge path of destruction.

A week after tornadoes struck Kentucky in March, I wrote a column offering advice from leaders in other disaster-damaged towns across the country. Among them was former Mayor John Janssen of Greensburg, whose experience seemed to offer a good model for West Liberty. Several people in West Liberty thought so, too.

After reading that column, they said, they began looking at Greensburg. They asked Bobby Clark of Lexington-based Midwest Clean Energy Enterprises, a consultant to one of West Liberty's reconstruction planning groups, to arrange for Wallach to meet with local officials and speak at a public meeting Tuesday that more than 50 people attended.

As I rode to West Liberty with Wallach, Clark and his business partner, Jason Delambre, Wallach explained that Greensburg's energy- efficient reconstruction strategy faced some opposition at first in the conservative town, where oil and gas exploration is a big part of the economy.

"We had to explain that this was not about tree-hugging, this was about our town's viability and survival," he said. "We stayed away from any language that had become politicized."

Wallach and others who started Greensburg GreenTown promoted the idea as common-sense economics: lower energy costs for homes, businesses and taxpayer-supported government buildings.

But they also talked about faith-based values, such as caring for God's creation. And they said that if Greensburg could become an international example for other towns, outsiders would have a reason to visit and invest in the community.

Eventually, Wallach said, most of the skeptics got it. Some green-oriented businesses have announced plans to locate plants there, and existing businesses have found new niches. For example, he said, the rebuilt John Deere dealership now has a good side business selling wind turbines throughout Kansas.

Greensburg officials didn't require anyone to rebuild with energy-efficient design or technology, but it helped the majority who did find expertise and incentives. The few who didn't now envy their neighbors' much smaller utility bills, he said.

During our ride to West Liberty, Wallach said he thought the idea of sustainable reconstruction might also get some pushback in West Liberty, a conservative town on the edge of the coalfields. But leaders there were way ahead of him.

Hank Allen, president of Commercial Bank and the West Liberty Chamber of Commerce, said he plans to rebuild his bank using super energy-efficient design and materials as soon as he settles with his insurance company.

Allen also is considering a brilliant idea: adding incubator space onto his Main Street bank building to help small businesses get back on their feet. One of the biggest problems West Liberty faces, he said, is that reconstruction will mean higher rents for businesses that were struggling to stay afloat before the tornado.

"In my mind, we can't recover until Main Street recovers," Allen told Wallach. "I'm very optimistic because I know there's such a desire for the town to come back. I think this is the first step, having you here."

Allen and several other Morgan County leaders said they were impressed by Greensburg's example and are organizing a trip there this fall.

Wallach said he sees no reason West Liberty can't do what Greensburg did — and more — because Morgan County is in a less-remote location and has more natural resources than his area of Kansas.

"All of the elements seem to be here, and they seem really enthused by that," Wallach said of Morgan County and its leaders. "What Greensburg offers is an example of hope. It's remarkable what happens when people see for themselves what's possible."

Several Morgan County groups are looking at rebuilding strategies with help from experts at Morehead State University and the University of Kentucky. One proposed strategy is called B.E.G.I.N. Again!, the acronym standing for Building, Entrepreneurial, Green, Innovative, Networked-enterprises.

In addition to encouraging energy-efficient reconstruction, the strategy envisions West Liberty using its natural potential for geothermal energy to build a shared system that downtown businesses could tap into.

The plan also offers several ideas for better positioning West Liberty, a former tobacco farming community, in the 21st-century economy. One is capitalizing on nearby Cave Run Lake, the Red River Gorge and hunting and fishing assets to make West Liberty a tourist hub for eco-tourism and outdoor recreation. That would include developing trails and other attractions along the city's lovely Licking River frontage.

Other ideas include developing a 21st-century model for rural health care using West Liberty's recently restored hospital; fostering local entrepreneurship; putting a free wireless Internet system downtown, where cellphone coverage is spotty; and trying to develop a world-class data recovery system that could be marketed to companies elsewhere.

Wallach, a Colorado native, thought adventure tourism was an especially good idea. He kept remarking on Morgan County's natural beauty and its potential for attracting outdoor enthusiasts and sportsmen.

State Rep. John Will Stacy said he was impressed by his meeting with Wallach and many of the ideas it sparked. Judge-Executive Tim Conley, who talked with Wallach on Wednesday, was similarly enthusiastic, Clark said.

Meetings are planned this week among West Liberty's various reconstruction groups to refine ideas and begin setting priorities, Clark said.

As horrible as disasters are, they can provide a clean slate for renewal if leaders seize the opportunity. Wallach stressed that the best hope for small towns such as West Liberty is to create authentic, innovative visions for economic development that will generate excitement and investment from locals and outsiders.

"Everybody loves a comeback story," he said. "The more innovative you are with the project, the more outside help you're going to get."

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