It is hard to see a silver lining in all the destruction that hurricanes, floods, wildfires, tornados and earthquakes leave behind. But if there is one, it is in the creative and dedicated way some affected communities are rebuilding to make their homes and neighborhoods more sustainable than they might ever have become otherwise.
Take Greensburg, Kansas. On May 4,2007, 90% of this small farming community was literally sheared to the ground by an EF-5 tornado raging at 200 mph. Ten people died, and so could have the hopes and dreams of the 1500 survivors.
Instead, the city council seized the opportunity to “create a strong community devoted to family, fostering business, and working together for future generations.” They passed a resolution declaring that all city buildings would be rebuilt to LEED-platinum standards, meaning that the buildings would be highly energy efficient. Wind turbines were constructed to provide 100% of the city’s electricity. When the city’s streetlights went back up, they were outfitted with LEDs, the most energy-efficient light bulbs available. To conserve water, structures were rebuilt using low flow water fixtures. A system was engineered so that rainwater would be collected for use in irrigation and in some facilities to help flush toilets and meet other non-drinking water needs. Native plants became de rigeur in landscaping. The schools, hospital, courthouse, bank, arts center and “SunChips Business Incubator” all were rebuilt to become model sustainable buildings, an approach that is saving a combined total of $200,000 in energy costs per year .
Rebuilding in New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005 has been challenging on a different scale. New Orleans is significantly larger than Greensburg, both in square miles and in population. While Greensburg was destroyed by wind, New Orleans’s damage came primarily from the floods that happened when storm surge breached the city’s levees in multiple places, leaving 80% of New Orleans submerged. More than 1,800 people are believed to have lost their lives. Damages have exceeded $81 billion.
Though NOLA, as New Orleans is called, is still in the process of rebuilding, that process has been informed by a commitment to what city planners there call “sustainable and smart urban development.“Our objective is not merely to recover, but to recover smarter, greener, and better than we were before.”
The Louisiana legislature passed one of the most aggressive solar and wind tax credit programs in the country, which motivated the Louisiana Community and Technical College System to develop a solar installer training course to increase the number of certified solar installers in the state. The local utility, Entergy New Orleans, worked with Delgado Community College to develop courses to train home energy auditors. Actor and environmentalist Brad Pitt founded Make It Right to build homes that are affordable, solar-powered, and “cradle to cradle inspired,” meaning they use eco-friendly and healthy materials, renewable energy, enhance water quality and aspire to continuously improve.
Rebuilding after a catastrophic fire can be just as daunting – and inspiring. Consider the 2013 High Park Fire in rural Larimer County, Colorado. The inferno torched over 87,000 acres of forest and 259 homes in addition to the one person killed and many hundreds of people displaced and financially ruined. But the Northern Colorado Rebuilding Network wasn’t having it. Their goal was to “help our neighbors rebuild safer, better and smarter.” And so they did. They raised $180,000 to help provide assistance to homeowners who wanted to rebuild. They offered “Dirt to Drapes” workshops that covered such sustainable rebuilding topics as installing solar electric or hot water systems. The local utility explained how “thermal shells” help save energy, too. Said founder Phil Bernstein, “It really doesn’t cost any more to build sound, tight and sustainable homes that will save the owners a lot of money on energy over the long term.”
Planning for the Future
Given the increasingly deadly impact climate change is having on natural disasters, it is better to be prepared. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy department has published a free guide called Rebuilding After Disaster: Going Green from the Ground Up. It might be worth sending to your mayor or city or county council before disaster strikes.
Natural disasters happen, and in this era of climate change, they are happening more often and with more heartbreaking impact. But as Greensburg, New Orleans, and Larimer County show, as much as these catastrophes end one way of life, they can begin another. That may not be much consolation in the moment, but perhaps in the long term, it will prove to be a catalyst for more sustainable planning regardless of when and where disaster strikes.