Municipal Leader of the Year: Come-back kid
When Steve Hewitt took the job as city administrator for Greensburg, Kan., in 2006, there was nothing extraordinary about the town of about 1,400 people. It had schools, a museum, a library, and a downtown business district. Less than a year later, however, everything that was Greensburg was gone — everything that is, except the community’s most important asset: its people.
In May 2007, one of the strongest tornadoes on record obliterated almost every house, telephone pole, tree and business in Greensburg, leaving 11 people dead and most of its residents homeless. For some other cities Greensburg’s size, such a tragedy would be their end. Determined not only to salvage his hometown, but to recreate a model of energy efficiency and sustainability, Hewitt never considered giving up. Many in Greensburg say their town would have simply disappeared had it not been for his efforts. For creating a vision for a better Greensburg and leading his town toward it, he is American City & County‘s 2008 Municipal Leader of the Year.
Setting emotions aside
Residents only had about 20 minutes to find a safe place before the tornado hit Greensburg at about 10 p.m. on May 4. In a matter of minutes, the town’s grade school, high school, city hall, hospital, water tower, fire station, business district and Main Street were flattened. Understandably, Greensburg’s residents were devastated — but despite their personal turmoil, Hewitt and others quickly came forward to pick up the pieces. “My home, like everyone else’s, was destroyed,” Hewitt says. “It was overwhelming; at first, I was in a daze.”
Within a few minutes after the storm, Hewitt radioed some of his employees to determine the extent of the damage. “When I heard downtown was gone, I said, ‘What do you mean?’” he says. “They told me, ‘All the buildings are gone.’ It didn’t make sense to me at first. You can’t fathom that a whole town is wiped out.”
Overcoming his shock, Hewitt went into action. He drove his wife and son to the home of relatives in a nearby town, and once he knew they were safe, he focused on saving Greensburg. “I’m not going to be Dad of the Year, because I had to set my family aside for awhile to focus on getting the community functioning,” Hewitt says. “Thank God for my family because they understood. I didn’t even handle the cleanup of my own property; family members took care of it for me. I didn’t have time.”
Within an hour after the storm, Hewitt arrived at the command center — a group of tents where city department heads and emergency personnel from other cities were gathering. Immediately, he launched search and rescue efforts to locate survivors and victims. Ultimately, the teams conducted four separate searches, which continued for three days. Some of the dead were found some distance from the ripped foundations of their homes. Thirty people were trapped in the collapsed hospital until rescuers dug them out. A bar, one of the only buildings left partially standing, was converted into a makeshift morgue.
While the search continued, Hewitt led other teams to begin clearing the streets and taking inventory. His gift for leading and organizing diverse groups toward a common goal became evident on day two, as he began meeting with the first of many groups of volunteers who would descend on the city to help revive the electric, water, gas and sewer systems.
Managing multiple groups
As some residents and observers wondered whether Greensburg would recover, Hewitt remained focused on rebuilding. When it became clear that his job description would have to expand to include coordination of hundreds of volunteers and various aid groups, he grabbed the reins. From his central command tent, Hewitt coordinated the city’s efforts to mobilize the support and donations from state relief agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Guard, the Red Cross, national church groups, private organizations and individuals.
Along with managing donations, rescue workers and volunteers, Hewitt had to oversee numerous contractors, a role that often required him to demand results that would prove challenging to any contractor. For instance, without power or running water, Hewitt knew that getting utilities back online was top priority.
By June, gas and water were available, but electricity was not. When an engineering company estimated the job would take four months to design and a year to build, Hewitt “said no,” says Mick Kendall, Greensburg’s utility director. The company rose to the challenge and completed the work in five months. “That’s the type of guy Steve is,” Kendall says. “He can get a lot of work out of people who really don’t know how they’re going to get something done, but they do it for Steve.”
One of Hewitt’s greatest challenges remained communicating with Greensburg’s residents, all of whom had been living in shelters or other housing outside the city for at least a month. “Emotions were very high,” Hewitt says. “We did the best job we could, broadcasting on radio stations and sending out flyers to checkpoints. People were frustrated, especially when they couldn’t get back in for a few days, but we don’t regret those decisions. We had to have a clear picture of the devastation and make sure it was safe before we could let people back in.”
Residents could visit their property a few days after the tornado, but Hewitt and his staff had to control access to the community for a month. “We had to manage the process and have a good hold on fire, safety and EMS resources,” he says. “I think we did a good job because we didn’t have anyone else get hurt, and we kept down vandalism.”
Putting the green with the burg
Hewitt knew a quick recovery was necessary, but he also understood that careful planning was critical. “We were very tough on how the city operated,” he says. “We got the temporary city hall up immediately and got staff in place to make sure codes were followed and licenses were issued for any building. Before any major construction could begin, comprehensive planning had to be done, and that took most of a year.”
That plan included land use and placement of buildings and infrastructure, as well as initiatives to attract business opportunities and create new jobs. Early in the planning, Hewitt and other city leaders decided to rebuild Greensburg as a model green community. In December 2007, the city council passed a resolution requiring all municipally owned buildings larger than 4,000 square feet to be certified LEED Platinum, which would reduce energy consumption by 42 percent over previous building codes. LEED Platinum is the highest rating a building can achieve from the Washington-based U.S. Green Building Council, and Greensburg is the first city to pass such a resolution. “This major plan is what will make Greensburg better in the future,” Hewitt says. “It’s great because it involved everybody; we had many town meetings and charrettes. It would have been easy just to slap buildings up, but we’re making sure that Greensburg will be better for future generations.”
Hewitt led the charge to include energy efficiency in rebuilding the city and worked to educate the community on the benefits of LEED design. Thanks to Hewitt’s encouragement and support, many stores, offices and homes will be more energy efficient and structurally sound than the buildings they replaced. “We decided if you have a clean slate, you might as well do it right; let’s rebuild it green,” says John Janssen, former mayor of Greensburg. “Storms [and the outpouring of support the devastation brings] are a short-term thing. If you’re going to get commitment to help over the long term, you’ve got to be different. Going green made that happen.”
Greensburg’s new policy garnered the support of local, state and national organizations and agencies that promote green building. That included the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. CBS’ “The Early Show” broadcast live from Greensburg for a week in April 2008, and its anchors helped rebuild an eco-friendly playground. More publicity has come from the Discovery Channel, including a one-hour program on the first anniversary of the tornado May 4, 2008, a 13-part series on the rebuilding of the town on Planet Green, a six-part series on TLC about Greensburg families rebuilding their homes, and a four-part series on the Science Channel featuring green building technologies.
Hewitt continues to use his city’s spotlight to attract additional funds to pay for rebuilding at standards beyond what insurance, FEMA and the state will pay. FEMA pays 75 percent of the cost of building to the pre-tornado state, Kansas pays 15 percent and Greensburg is responsible for the remaining 10 percent. But that only covers recreating the old Greensburg, and Hewitt wants the recovery to be bigger, better and greener. “Ultimately, [the federal and state governments are] there to help you, but you can’t wait for them to do it for you,” Hewitt says. “It might be a situation where, if you don’t get the right answer from one FEMA person, you go to the next one above them, and so on, until you get the right answer.
“We had to have FEMA, we had to have the state, we need USDA and Red Cross and the United Way,” Hewitt says. “We need all of those things to make it. People have made donations, and we’re trying to be diligent with that and show that we are building back this town better. We want to make it the best little community in Kansas to live in.”
Eighteen months after the storm, Greensburg has made great strides, but Hewitt’s work is not over yet. “About half the population is back in and involved in the community,” Hewitt says. “Churches are going up, homes are popping up, a new school and hospital are about to break ground. People want Greensburg back tomorrow, but it’s going to take years.”
Many residents attribute the progress that has been made to Hewitt. “We were extra fortunate to have someone with his vision and skill level in place when this happened,” says Darin Headrick, school superintendent. “The recovery was about people, and when you have the right people in place, it makes it a much smoother process.”
“If it hadn’t been for Steve Hewitt and his initiative to get things started around town, Greensburg would have folded up and faded away,” says Gary Goodheart, city councilman. “A lot of people moved [away] after the tornado, but Steve was very insistent about Greensburg coming back and coming back the right way.”
Hewitt takes the credit in stride. “This community was going to make it no matter what, and I feel like I was lucky to be here” he says. “Organizations need managers, and managers need to put operations in place so that when disasters happen, they can be handled. That’s what we did; we just did our jobs. There’s not a formula to follow when 95 percent of a community gets wiped out.”
While it is clear now that there is no turning back and Greensburg will be rebuilt, Hewitt says continuing the momentum has been his toughest job yet. “When people don’t see progress immediately, they get frustrated and question our direction, our leaders, and whether it’s all worth it,” he says. “Keeping positive momentum and a positive attitude is a constant challenge. It’s a different thing to manage because concerns like this are natural, but we have to remember that we all have the same goal: a better Greensburg.”
Hewitt is committed to see the rebuilding through to the end, and other Greensburg leaders feel privileged to have his leadership. “He’s had opportunities to leave and go elsewhere, but he tells them no; he wants to stay here and see this thing through,” Janssen says. “I believe the good Lord puts people where they need to be.”
Nancy Mann Jackson is a Florence, Ala.-based freelance writer.
- Tornado-stricken town plans total rebuild
On May 4, Greensburg, Kan., was struck by a devastating tornado, leaving more than 90 percent of the town, including city hall, in ruins.
- Watch AP video story on Greensburg
An Associated Press’ video story on Greensburg on YouTube
- Visit the City of Greensburg, Kan., Web site
Official government site with information about city services, post-tornado recovery plan and rebuilding
- Learn about Planet Green’s Greensburg
A 13-part series on the rebuilding of the town
- Visit Greensburg GreenTown Web site
A non-profit organization created to help rebuild Greensburg, Kan., as a green community