Interview with Bob Dixson
Greensburg builds back better

Bob Dixson is mayor of Greensburg, Kansas. He led Greensburg’s long-term rebuilding effort after a Level 5 tornado—with 205 mile-per-hour winds—destroyed 95 percent of the city in May 2007. Prior to being elected mayor, Dixson had already forged community relationships during stints in several other local offices: school board president, church boards, town postmaster. Thus, he was able to rally local support to rebuild resilient infrastructure after the tornado.

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Aspiring to the title of Greenest City in America, Greensburg ultimately seeks to run on 100 percent renewable energy, 100 percent of the time—while reducing energy use overall. All government buildings are built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum specifications, including Greensburg’s city hall, a school, and a county hospital.

Bob Dixson

In the aftermath of the tornado, Greensburg took a long-term approach to rebuilding resilient infrastructure. How did that come about?

In the aftermath of a disaster there’s a tendency for all of us to want to get back to some sense of normalcy as quickly as we can. But we’re also dealing with tremendous emotional loss—and grieving our neighbors who are no longer with us.

As elected officials and city administrators, we’re dealing with rebuilding not only our personal lives but also the future of the community. Those are unique challenges. It’s very important not to make life-changing decisions rapidly at times like this.

We had a tremendous opportunity in Greensburg because the whole community—city, county, schools, hospitals—rallied together to build our long-term recovery on a sustainable master plan, along with FEMA and other agencies. It wasn’t just a boiler-plate plan from Washington, DC.

How did you rally the support of the entire community?

Too many times, post-disaster, people feel they’re entitled—that the government is going to swoop in and make them whole again, and everything is going to be like it was. That attitude of entitlement doesn’t work. It doesn’t elicit the community buy-in that you need for an effective recovery.

In Greensburg, we decided that we wanted to be good stewards of our resources. Rebuilding is about stewardship. It’s about resilience and sustainability. It’s about our ability to endure. You have to envision what you can be 50 to 100 years from now. What is our ability to endure?

But for a community to have that mentality post-disaster, you have to have it pre-disaster. Is the infrastructure in place for you to communicate promptly to the entire community? Do you deal with issues—as they come along—in a forthright manner? Do all the different organizations—public, private, not-for-profit—work together? Does the community function effectively?

If everything is working as it should be, the community will recover, despite the challenges you face post-disaster, because you already have all the processes in place. And you have the right mentality.

Right off the bat, just hours after the tornado, we made sure everyone knew what was going on, what resources were available, and what time frames to expect. Our immediate focus was on communication.

We put up a big tent to hold communitywide planning meetings. We’d have between 400 and 500 people show up for them. Remember, we were all displaced. So not only was it an opportunity to plan, it was an opportunity to see each other and be a community again. That community spirit, in the aftermath of a horrific disaster, strengthened our collective will to build back better.

What can other communities facing similar rebuilding challenges learn from Greensburg?

Know your strengths and weaknesses as a community. Once you recognize your assets, values, systemic challenges, and ongoing problems, you’ll have a starting point to rebuild stronger. You will begin to see the opportunities.

Know your microclimate. Architects need to understand the microclimate and the geophysical conditions to design buildings that are energy-efficient and sustainable.

You can choose to be a surviving community or a thriving community, one that’s resilient. To be truly resilient, you have to learn from the past and implement what you learn. When you choose to be a thriving community, you will continue to grow and heal, emotionally and physically. Your focus will be on future generations.

What role has the private sector played in rebuilding resilient infrastructure?

Public-private partnerships are highly critical to disaster recovery because it’s not just about the buildings. You must also rebuild sustainable, resilient businesses. LEED-certified, energy efficient buildings are great but you need people to inhabit those buildings for a vibrant economy. And for that to happen, we must involve private enterprise in the process.

The private sector was an active participant in Greensburg’s recover. In our planning process, for example, we identified the need for a business incubator building to help restore the businesses that had lost their buildings downtown. Frito-Lay donated $1 million for the incubator through their SunChips division.

Meanwhile, the corporate office of John Deere provided expertise and support to rebuild its local dealership. Private healthcare suppliers the world over offers to help our local hospital. And GM assisted the local Chevy dealership get back in business.

The private sector donated not just money, but also products, assistance, and telecommunications capabilities. Collaborating with corporate America was an essential part of our recovery process in Greensburg.

What risk reduction strategies are you incorporating into your infrastructure?

Every building in town has been rebuilt stronger—more resistant to winds and disaster. Every building in town has a safe room or some kind of storm shelter. We are doing everything we can that is economically and environmentally feasible.

Short of living in an underground bunker for complete protection against a Level 5 tornado with 200-plus-mile-an-hour winds, all you can realistically do is make sure that you minimize loss of life and property damage.

What role does technology play?

Within our financial means, we’re implementing modern technology throughout our infrastructure. New circuits and breakers assist in the management of our electrical grid while the latest technologies provide backup measures for our water and sewer systems.

Our planning process allows for flexibility in our infrastructure systems—recognizing that when funds are available in the future, we can improve them as necessary.

For example, during the planning process we talked about burying our power lines, which were all above ground before the tornado. Once in a while, we have an ice storm that takes down the lines, and this would have been an ideal opportunity to bury the lines, for both maintenance and aesthetic reasons. But when we looked at the cost, especially for a community that just lost all its tax base, this just wasn’t feasible.

However, when we rebuilt the electrical lines, we didn’t put them back pole for pole. We sat down with a firm that incorporates smart design and figured out where our circuits should be placed so that if we do have an ice storm that shorts out our electricity, the entire town wouldn’t experience an outage; instead, only certain areas would be affected.

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