Editor’s Viewpoint: The tough get going
The fear must have been palpable. Not the fear of an economic crisis that could evaporate jobs, but the certainty that the tornado outside had transformed usually secure homes into potential death traps.
As helpless as any of his neighbors, Steve Hewitt walked outside his Greensburg, Kan., home minutes after the storm had passed. He saw the devastation and, without hesitation, knew it was time to go to work, although it was close to midnight. As city administrator of the town of only 1,400 residents, Hewitt had no choice, but the reason why he is American City & County‘s 2008 Municipal Leader of the Year is because of the choices he made after the emergency was over.
The magazine doesn’t give awards for recovering from a disaster, because there is no shortage of those in any given year. Our Municipal Leaders of the Year show vision beyond leadership, and the courage and energy to shepherd their communities through the rough terrain of complex problems into a better place.
To make it clear what Hewitt was up against on May 4 last year, most of his hometown had vanished, and 90 percent of its residents were instantly homeless. The hospital was gone, the water tower was down, and the fire station and the entire downtown was a pile of rubble.
Hewitt became the leader that Greensburg needed, coordinating the efforts of government and relief agencies, private organizations and volunteers. He led the charge to restore basic utilities and, although natural gas and running water were available about a month after the tornado, he had to push the contractors to rebuild the power system in five months rather than the year they had estimated. Communicating with Greensburg’s residents was Hewitt’s second front, and, because they had mostly scattered to nearby homes of friends and relatives, it was difficult to let them know of the progress being made.
But, doing his job, even as hard as it was, wasn’t enough for Hewitt. He and other local leaders decided to make Greensburg a model city. To show their commitment, the city council required all municipally owned buildings larger than 4,000 square feet to be LEED Platinum certified, which will reduce energy consumption by 42 percent over the previous building codes. That has inspired many Greensburg businesses and homes to build more energy-efficient structures. Hewitt and Greensburg has captured the attention of CBS and the Discovery Channel, and its networks, Planet Green, the Learning Channel and the Science Channel.
It’s a long way from the night in May last year when Greensburg’s residents wondered if a tornado was going to destroy their lives. They never would have believed that one city official was going to commit his life to ensuring that didn’t happen, much less to building a Greensburg that is showing the rest of the country a vision of its own future.