Oklahoma town unlikely to recover from tornado

Wednesday, May 14th 2008, 9:32 pm

By: News 9

Associated Press Writer

PICHER, Okla. (AP) -- State and federal officials toured this tornado-ravaged town and essentially hammered the final nail into its coffin.

Any financial aid sent to the 800-person community, they said, will only help people relocate, not rebuild in the same area where a government buyout of homes is already under way.

"Rebuilding here is not going to be a real option," Gov. Brad Henry said Tuesday. The storm will likely hasten, rather than delay, the buyout process, he said.

Saturday's tornado leveled 114 homes and was responsible for seven deaths in Picher, a fading lead and zinc mining town in far northeastern Oklahoma. The severe weather killed another 20 people in the Plains and the Southeast.

"It really is like a small nuclear bomb went off," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said after touring the area. He was joined by the governor and David Paulison, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The tornado struck the heart of a federal Superfund site, an area beset with mine collapses, open shafts, acid water and mountains of lead-contaminated waste. The government has been buying out residents' homes.

The Environmental Protection Agency is testing the air to see if it became tainted with lead when the tornado scattered mine waste. Agency spokeswoman Tressa Tillman said Wednesday that preliminary tests showed that particulate levels weren't high enough to raise health concerns.

There also are concerns that the tornado contaminated soil in the 800-person town, which was once a thriving hub of 20,000 people in Ottawa County. Prolonged exposure to lead can damage nervous systems, particularly in young children.

Paul Sharbutt, 62, whose home of 40 years was heavily damaged, has been waiting to receive his buyout offer and said he is not looking forward to leaving.

"To have lived here all your life and built your home, we really hated to move and lose it, let alone to lose it like this," he said Tuesday.

The tornado damage also ultimately could hurry the closure of the region's school district, where enrollment has dropped precipitously in recent years. The Picher-Cardin district, which has 99 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, nearly closed before this school year.

State Superintendent Sandy Garrett said Tuesday she would allow the district - along with the nearby Quapaw district - to cancel classes for the rest of the school year. Officials did not want to speculate on the future of Picher-Cardin.

"How long the buyout process continues, and how fast, certainly impacts us, but it's really too early to speculate on next year. At this time, I'm just trying to focus on closing this school year and getting things wrapped up right now," Picher-Cardin Superintendent Donnie Barr said.

The governor asked President Bush on Tuesday to provide a disaster declaration for Ottawa County, which would clear the way for federal assistance to individuals and businesses. Henry's request will be considered quickly, Paulison said.

Tressie Gilmore and four family members salvaged what they could Tuesday, days after they emerged from a pile of debris that used to be their house, shaken but with nothing worse than bruised ribs.

The 25-year-old joined family and friends as they sifted through what remained of her mother and stepfather's home after the tornado - with winds estimated at 165 to 175 mph - slammed into Picher.

"It felt like evil," she said. "It didn't feel like Mother Nature. It felt personal."

© 2008 The Associated Press.


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