PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Starting Over 2009 HONOREE

Steve Hewitt, Administrator, Greensburg, Kansas

Steve Hewitt

Read more of the extended Q&A with Steve Hewitt.

After a vicious tornado swept through Greensburg, Kansas, city administrator Steve Hewitt emerged from his basement to find nearly every structure in his town of 1,500 people flattened by the storm. Eleven people were dead. "The town was absolutely, completely leveled," Hewitt says of the May 2007 twister. "At first, I couldn't even fathom it."

Almost as unimaginable was the challenge Hewitt faced next: How do you rebuild an entire town? Greensburg's citizens quickly coalesced around a signal idea: rebuilding green, using the most environmentally sensitive methods possible. There were others promoting this idea besides Hewitt, but nobody has played a bigger role than he has in making the vision come to reality. "Greensburg had a unique opportunity," Hewitt says. "We had a blank canvas. We decided, we're going to rebuild smarter. We're going to think about the future."

The town has constructed a new business incubator, a new city hall, a hospital and a school — all at or near the highest national green-building standards. Private businesses also have rebuilt in environmentally friendly ways. There will be energy-efficient LED streetlights on every corner; a new streetscape will collect stormwater runoff so that it can be used to nourish plants and trees; and a new wind-energy farm is breaking ground just outside of town. Hewitt keeps it all on track, riding herd on contractors who don't always get the new way of doing things. He's "an amazing combination of a manager and entrepreneur," says Daniel Wallach, executive director of Greensburg GreenTown, a nonprofit helping the city rebuild sustainably. "That's rare generally, and it's especially rare in government."

The Greensburg idea is about more than environmental awareness, says Hewitt. It's given townspeople hope that their community can emerge better than before. "This small town needed something to grab on to and rally around, and green was the perfect answer. It's a motivator that continues to tell us, 'Hey, we're going to survive this thing.'"

— By ZACH PATTON | Photograph by David Kidd