Bob Dixson’s heart sank when he heard that tornadoes had ripped through Alabama and several neighboring states on April 27, 2011.
Dixson, the keynote speaker at last week’s “Designing After Disaster” workshop in Birmingham, survived his hometown of Greensburg, Kansas being leveled by an EF5 tornado in May 2007.
Winds measuring 205 miles per hour left a path of destruction that stretched for 1.7 miles.
Nearly 95 percent of the buildings in the community, including homes, a school, a hospital and all businesses, churches and municipal structures, were reduced to rubble.
Meteorologists later determined that the eye of the storm took nearly two minutes to move across town. As it slowly churned, it effectively lifted an entire city 60,000 feet in the air and then scattered it for the next 20 miles.
Five years later, Greensburg is considered one of the best examples in the nation of how communities can recover from a disaster.
Rocky Milliman, Alabama’s disaster recovery coordinator, and Beth Stukes, chairman of Cordova’s Long Term Recovery Committee, both said during last week’s seminar that they were inspired by their respective visits to Greensburg in 2011.
Dixson, who has served as mayor of Greensburg since 2008, said he believes it is his duty to uplift local leaders who are involved in rebuilding efforts.
However, he cautioned, “There is no cookie-cutter plan to helping any community recover.”
Green technology was the path Greensburg residents chose to take to a brighter future.
The city council passed a resolution shortly after their storm stating that all government buildings would be constructed according to LEED platinum specifications.
More than 800 of the city’s 1,574 residents and 60 businesses have committed to using sustainable design practices.
Dixson noted that some people believe the town even changed its name to reinforce becoming the greenest city in America, but Greensburg was in fact named by its founder, Don Green, more than 100 years ago.
Dixson said that one of the first sustainable resources that residents learned to tap into in the midst of the devastation was their relationship with each other.
“That’s the thing that maintained us and gave us focus. It wasn’t about possessions because nobody had any left. It became about faith, family and friends and how you bind together to make a better place for all of us to live and work,” he said.
For nearly three months, several hundred Greensburg residents gathered two to three times a week for planning meetings, which were held in a circus tent provided by FEMA.
Dixson said one of the most difficult battles community members faced was accepting that the life and the town they had were not coming back. However, they chose to see the disaster as an opportunity to return to the values that had been instilled in them by their ancestors and to chart a new course for future generations.
For example, Dixson said that for several decades prior to the storm, Greensburg’s biggest export was its youth.
“It gave us a chance to address some of the systematic problems that every community faces and to do it by transcending politics,” he said.
Five years into the rebuilding process, Dixson is often asked when he believes recovery will be complete. His answer: never.
Dixson said his goal is to foster an attitude of growth in Greensburg because his belief is that if it isn’t growing, then it’s dying.
He encouraged local recovery leaders to keep their citizens informed and engaged in their respective rebuilding efforts and to celebrate every success along the way, whether it’s a grand opening or a new neighbor.
He warned them to not expect any federal or state agency to make their communities whole but rather to view them as partners in the process.
Finally, Dixson encouraged them to not let today’s reality cloud their vision of the future.
“Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision is just passing time. But action with vision can change your community, your state, our nation and the world,” Dixson said.