by Mary Hooper
More than six years after the great tornado that nearly obliterated it, Greensburg continues to spark curiosity nationally and internationally, attracting visitors from places as varied as Walt Disney World in Florida to Moldova, a small nation in Eastern Europe that once was part of the former Soviet Union.
What accounts for this fascination with a town of barely 900 in flat, arid southwestern Kansas?
Kevin Richberg, writing for the online Huffington Post, perhaps put it best.
Greensburg, he wrote, "would become one of the most radical transformations any city had ever attempted."
Before the EF-5 monster, 1.7 miles wide with winds of more than 200 mph, Greensburg was a placid farming and ranching town of about 1,400, its streets shaded by cottonwoods and sycamores, its houses and commercial buildings, many of them handsome, dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The tornado struck at 9:45 p.m. on May 4, 2007. It took only minutes to pulverize 95 percent of the town. Ten people were killed and one died a few weeks later of injuries.
Although in shock, city leaders, surveying the devastation, vowed to rebuild. But Greensburg wouldn't be just a new town. The rebuilding would incorporate the latest in energy-saving technology. With the help of a new organization, the non-profit Greensburg GreenTown, founded by environmentalist Daniel Wallach of nearby Stafford County, the city embarked on a series of measures, including a long-term master plan, to encourage what is often called "sustainability."
Sustainability, writes Thomas J. Fox in Green Town U.S.A., a history of the city's rebuilding, is another way of saying "Waste not, want not."
Greensburg would be living up to its name.
There are many actors in the green rebuilding story – residents and business owners, city and state officials, FEMA, non-profits, even an actual actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, who produced a Planet Green/Discovery Channel series on Greensburg's rebirth. The rebuilding effort attracted thousands of volunteers and millions in donations.
Greensburg also sought to present itself as an eco-tourism destination, and nowadays that's why most people come to town – to see the Big Well Museum, 5.4.7 Arts Center, the businesses, public buildings and the many homes built with energy-efficient technology.
Interest in Greensburg doesn't seem to be diminishing.
Recent visitors have hailed from Slovenia, France, Germany and Japan. Under the sponsorship of the U.S. State Department, a crew from a TV station in Chisinau, Moldova, visited Greensburg and other places in the U.S. to see how Americans are using green technology.
National Public Radio recently came to town.
Debbie Petersen was driving to work one morning – she is an executive of creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering at Walt Disney World in Orlando – and listening to NPR which was broadcasting an interview with Scott and Susan Reinecke, owners of Studio 54 Stained Glass on Highway 54.
The Reineckes' story was fascinating, but what particularly piqued Petersen's interest was Susan's use of tornado glass in "memory" mementoes, such as crosses.
She determined to learn about the reborn town on the prairie and its people, like the Reineckes, who lost much but found more in the disaster's aftermath.
Before the tornado, Scott Reinecke worked at Greensburg Collision and Auto Glass, a company founded by his father, Harry. Susan owned Red Shed Antiques and pursued a hobby of making jewelry and art objects from art glass.
In the weeks after the tornado, the Reineckes cleared away the rubble of their home and businesses by day. In the evening, they'd take walks around the blasted town and pick up bits and pieces of this and that.
"We ended up with buckets of broken glass and china. We didn't really know why we were doing this. We would walk and talk and try to figure it all out," said Susan.
They took a trip to North Carolina, looking, as Susan said, "for a place calling to us."
The place calling to them was their old hometown.
"We came to realize that Greensburg was home and that's where we wanted to be. We packed up the next day and came home," she said.
Pre-tornado, the Reineckes would talk about starting their own stained glass business when they retired. Now, they realized, they were going into the stained and art glass business a lot sooner than they had thought.
First they set up shop in the business incubator building and later moved across the street to the new Kiowa County United mall.
The Reineckes already had considerable experience in working with glass.
"Once you know how to cut glass, it's basically the same principle," said Scott. "The technical part of working with glass I already had from working in the body shop."
He quickly proved, however, to be gifted in creating stained glass.
"I had done stained glass for 30 years as a hobby," said Susan. "His first piece trumped my 30 years."
Susan's specialty is making beautiful bowls, trays, vases, paperweights, pendants, bracelets, earrings and other jewelry from art glass, fired in her 1500-degree kiln. She also found a use for the tornado glass she had by the bucketful. She developed a method to fuse shards of this glass with art glass to make "memory" crosses which, with a bit of artist's wire, can be worn as pendants.
The glass rubble included shattered blue and amber stained glass windows from the wrecked St. Joseph Catholic Church.
"Our home is across the alley from St. Joseph. To this day we pick up pieces of the stained glass windows in our yard."
Susan's memory crosses using shards of St. Joseph's stained glass have proved very popular with parishioners.
Scott, meanwhile, created stained glass windows for the new First United Methodist Church and refurbished the one surviving stained glass window of First Baptist Church of Greensburg. It hangs in the sanctuary of the new church. The windows of Studio 54 are hung with many examples of Scott's stained glass work, including portraits, abstract panels and landscapes.
The Reineckes' studio/shop was one stop on Petersen's tour of Greenburg last year. She spoke to middle school students and residents at two public forums at the hospital, toured the John Deere Dealership and generally had a good time schmoozing with folks. Her tour guides were Dan Wallach and Ruth Ann Wedel, site manager for Greensburg GreenTown.
"I met so many people. It took such a short time for me to feel that I'd been there a long time. When it came time to say good-bye, I felt that I had made fast friends," said Petersen.
As an "imagineer" for Disney, Petersen's workplace is at Epcot, which is derived from the acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Disney Imagineering, the design arm of the company, is involved in designing theme parks, resorts and cruise ships for Disney worldwide. Disney encourages its imagineers to take some travel time or enroll in classes that would redound to their work.
Hearing about the Reineckes, Petersen did a little research on Greensburg and decided to visit, for if there was one place where people seemed to be doing a lot of imagineering, it was Greensburg.
Plus, she had never been to Kansas.
"I loved the idea that after such devastation, people can reimagine their town, that out of this disaster came something positive. Everything is new. People are excited, and almost seven years later, it's still ongoing."
During one of her talks, a listener described Greensburg as "the Epcot of the prairie."
Petersen thought the comparison apt.
Epcot, she notes, is Walt Disney's experimental city where innovators and creators showcase new products and ideas.
"Makes a lot of sense to say Greensburg is similar, or could be," she said. "I have never been to a sustainable community, and there are vast differences in the reality of Greensburg and Epcot, but the heart and vision are similar."
What surprised her most about Greensburg?
"Greensburg's story is not over. It's ongoing and complicated."