EDITOR'S NOTE:  Greensburg City Administrator Steve Hewitt answered questions put to him via phone for well over an hour December 19.  Following are his responses to questions concerning the City’s progress over the last seven months in recovering from the May 4 disaster, and prospects for that recovery’s continuation in 2008.  Part II, covering Hewitt’s personal reflections on such matters as the May 25 turnover in mayor, his experience with the media, living in FEMAville and what a new Greensburg might look like five years from now, will be published in next week’s Signal.  Photos are of Hewitt speaking at the Dec 19 Business Redevelopment meeting.


EDITOR'S NOTE:  Greensburg City Administrator Steve Hewitt answered questions put to him via phone for well over an hour December 19.  Following are his responses to questions concerning the City’s progress over the last seven months in recovering from the May 4 disaster, and prospects for that recovery’s continuation in 2008.  Part II, covering Hewitt’s personal reflections on such matters as the May 25 turnover in mayor, his experience with the media, living in FEMAville and what a new Greensburg might look like five years from now, will be published in next week’s Signal.  Photos are of Hewitt speaking at the Dec 19 Business Redevelopment meeting.


Signal:  What was your gut reaction to the devastation of May 4 in the first 24 hours following the tornado’s swath through town?  You must have had at lest a few doubts and fears as to Greensburg’s future amidst feeling a bit overwhelmed.
Hewitt:  Being overwhelmed is the first and foremost way to describe it.  When I looked at the community the next morning and what was left of it I got a sense of “Where do you start?  What do you do next?”  Of course, at first you’re worried about casualties and fatalities so search and rescue comes to mind first, but what’s the next step after that?  How does a small town deal with a disaster that wipes out the whole town?  You’ve got to get your infrastructure back and get your utilities back.  But the whole picture is overwhelming.  I got to thinking, “I don’t have a home.  My staff doesn’t have a home.  We have no offices.”  So you get temporary offices provided for and start to try to organize the chaos.
   We had to get our utilities back before we could evaluate where we were.  We had to get electricity back to our temporary places.  Then you think of what assets you still have and which ones do you need to get back first.
Signal:  That you and the city government would make some missteps in the first weeks following May 4 was probably inevitable, in that the scope of destruction for a town this size was virtually unprecedented.  What were some of those early misjudgments and what did you learn from them that’s helped you and the council proceed more wisely since in mapping out the town’s recovery?
Hewitt:  Really, two things.  First, you get a lot of advice from the state and federal officials, but you can’t approach your situation from the past experiences of other places that have had disasters, like they tend to do.  You get hit with a lot of misinformation.  We were hit with a lot of things early on by FEMA, and we were slowed down because of federal guidelines we were trying to follow.  Our utility recovery was slowed down by four weeks because of that.  Instead of just going ahead and getting things up as soon as possible we tried not to jeopardize federal and state funding by taking steps the government told us to.
   Simply to get electrical distribution back up FEMA told us it would take $35 million and then we’re looking at coming up with 15 percent of that.  So then we have to evaluate where we’re going to get all this money and that slows us down.  FEMA tends to take over when it’s really your community.
   Secondly, we panicked on how to recover financially.  We looked at building codes and permits right away as sources of funding.  We were worried because we had no tax base in sight, so what we did early on with the codes and permit fees was sort of a knee jerk reaction.  We had to back off that and we learned from that and realized it wouldn’t work.  The community came in and said to us, “What are you doing?”  We realized we needed to listen to the community and learned to trust and involve the community, and we learned from them early on how important it was not to do things to discourage rebuilding.
   Also, communication with and involvement of the community is something we learned to value and make a priority, and I think it’s something we’ve learned to do better.  We’ve made every effort to educate the community on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  We’ve learned, or maybe been reminded that it’s our community and we will get input from it and take in into consideration and not let the federal government dictate to us.  I think the work sessions we’ve been holding recently the Wednesdays before council meetings have been vital in that.
Signal:  What are some tradeoffs you’ve had to accept so far in the town’s recovery in order to quality for government funding, or to stay within financial constraints?
Hewitt:  First of all, we wanted to have all our utilities under ground, especially our electrical lines, in terms of what can happen in an ice storm as we just had.  I thought at first FEMA would help us make that improvement, but I found out they’ll only help you put back things the way they were.  So we had to go above ground again since we didn’t have the money to make up the difference to go underground.  But now if another ice storm comes along and puts our lines down again we could go to the federal government for money to help put them back up, when that would be avoided by putting them underground in the first place.  That makes no sense to me.
   I mean, we’re not trying to build Taj Mahals here, but just put things in better shape.  I fought with them for two months to get increased voltage lines put up so we could upgrade our capacity.  We got that approved, but again, it took two months.
  And then FEMA told us it would take only $1 million to rebuild our streets, which was a very low financial basis and we’ve been trying to get that reevaluated.  They don’t count damage to curbs and pavement caused by trucks and track hoes when they were in here cleaning up debris.  They’re reevaluating that and we had to fight for that to happen with the help of our U.S. Senators.  We expect a number two to three times larger, maybe up to a basis of $5 million to redo the streets.  FEMA was trying to get everything done and financial estimates done in 90 days but we were still cleaning up debris at that point, and the damage done to the streets by that is part of the overall damage from the storm.
Signal:  What do you think are the three biggest advances accomplished in 2007 in terms of the city being rebuilt?
Hewitt:  Getting the electrical distribution back up is number one.  A $5 million project like that would normally take a community our size two years to finish and we did it in six months.  Secondly, the help of the state and volunteers in getting debris cleaned up was huge.  With KDOT and the National Guard donating labor and machinery to do most of that for us we saved $55 million according to valuations of FEMA.  They (FEMA) expected us to bid that out to private contractors, but as I just said that would have cost us millions we didn’t have.  The state’s secretary of transportation, General Todd Bunting (National Guard) and Governor Sebelius deserve a lot of credit in making debris cleanup resources available to us.
   I know you said three but there are several more things that were big, like getting our water lines fixed and having started on the construction of a new water tower that will be up later this spring.  Also I think the collaborative effort between the city, county and school district has been important, as has getting the resources together to bring about the development of a master plan, the first phase of which is about done.
Signal:  Assuming the insurance money is there to do it, how vital do you think it is that Greensburg rebuild its power plant?
Hewitt:  First of all, you’ve got to remember we’ve got debt in the power plant just shy of $3 million that was there before the storm, from engine rebuild to distribution upgrade and water line upgrade.  We need as a community to take care of that debt.  We need to take a hard look at how to do this, but I don’t see how we go back to what we had before the tornado.  I’m hoping there’s some renewable energy we can bring in here.  As for solar and wind energy, NREL’s (National Renewable Energy Lab) helping us with that and we hope to have some backup energy.  But we have to develop a detailed energy policy first.  We could get some CAT diesel backup generators to power our infrastructure when needed.  But in the next 90 days we’ll have to decide on a long-term distribution and power direction.
   Should we sign a ten-year contract with Sunflower and try saving some money that way?  I don’t know.   Sunflower’s offered that if we give a long-term commitment to them they’ll provide three years of “green tags”, which is basically bragging rights that all our energy brought into us by them is from renewable sources.  We’re holding off on that until we get more information. We have several options but we have to wrap it up in the next 90 days and this normally takes a community years to plan.  We have more questions than answers right now.
Signal:  You’ve been a strong proponent of rebuilding the town “green,” and especially supportive of the resolution just passed calling for the City to build its structures to LEED Platinum specifications.  Why in your opinion was that commitment by the City Council so significant?
Hewitt:  First, when we talk about building green, it’s a common sense commitment and responsible commitment.  To not waste energy is smart.  We’re looking to build hundred-year buildings here, and that kind of thing sets the basis for the future administration of the City.
   Second of all, it’s unprecedented because there’s no city that has passed a platinum resolution like ours.  Some gold, yes, but not platinum.
   Thirdly, I would hope every private concern that’s building would take a second look at building a strong building through LEED specs.  Doing so at the certified level at least (the lowest of four levels of LEED criteria of energy and environmental efficiency) would be big.  The Manske townhomes (currently being constructed on the site of the former high school) are going to be LEED Certified.
   As more and more construction goes up at a minimum of LEED Certified, other people will see our commitment as a community and likely be attracted here, both privately and investment wise.  People want to be in a safe, strong community making good, sound decisions.  This is about future generations—what’s best for our kids and grandkids.
Signal:  What are the three most key developments you’re excited to see come about in 2008?
Hewitt:   I’m excited to see the final school drawings come out this year, and I’m excited to also see the hospital’s rebuilding plans come out.  The design of the Big Well and Town Hall will be a big step.  And, of course, seeing the incubator go up and open up for businesses this summer will be a thrill, especially since it will go up as the first LEED Platinum building in Kansas.  Over a hundred new homes are going up now and 200 or so more in 2008.  How can you not be excited about that?