Tornado-ravaged town might not rebuild

Saturday, May 10th 2008, 6:53 pm
By: News 9

Associated Press

PICHER, Okla. -- Authorities have released the names of those who were killed when a tornado blew through the former mining town of Picher over the weekend.

At a press briefing tonight, officials say 20-year-old Samuel Don Berry and his 19-year-old wife, Tracie Dawn, along with 80-year-old Chizuri Cox, 30-year-old Mistie Dawn Kelley and 48-year-old Linda Christine Mathis were killed. They were all residents of Picher.

Also killed was 28-year-old Darrell Edward Patterson the Second of Wagoner, who was visiting friends in Picher when he was killed.

The name of the seventh confirmed fatality wasn't released. That person died of carbon monoxide poisoning when fumes from a generator turned on after the storm left power outages in the area filled the home. Two other people in the house were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to check for high lead levels in the town, which is 1 of the most polluted Superfund sites in the nation.

There is concern that dust from the mine waste piled in mounds around the town could cause breathing problems.

Scientists were preparing tests Monday to find out how much lead-contaminated dust remains in the air after a deadly tornado blew through mountains of mining waste in a town that is already an environmental nightmare.

The Environmental Protection Agency was setting up a mobile command center to perform air and soil tests in Picher, where six people died Saturday when a tornado destroyed a 20-block area and blew dust off mountains of mining waste, or chat piles.

In all, 22 people were killed in the tornado outbreak in Oklahoma, Missouri and Georgia.

The National Weather Service estimates about 100 people have died in U.S. tornadoes so far this year. If trends hold, this could stack up as one of the deadliest tornado years in recent history. The deaths this year would be the most since 130 people were killed in 1998, which was the eighth highest total since 1950. The record is 519 tornado-related deaths in 1953.

Miles Tolbert, the Oklahoma secretary of the environment, said the expectation is that there is no immediate public health hazard to the people now working in the devastated area, but more testing is needed.

"You can look at the chat piles and see that a lot of the material has blown off," said John Sparkman, head of the Picher housing authority. "We went up on a chat pile an hour and a half after the tornado hit, and you could see dust blowing fine material all over the place from that vantage point."

Long-term exposure to lead dust poses a health risk, particularly to young children. It is this risk, plus the danger of land caving in to old mining tunnels that makes Picher a national Superfund site.

Law enforcement officers and the Oklahoma National Guard patrolled the area overnight into Monday to prevent looting, said Michelann Ooten, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

National Weather Service assessment teams determined the twister that hit Picher had an EF-4 rating, the second highest rating, and was 1 mile wide at its widest point, meteorologist Mike Teague said Monday. The tornado's winds were estimated at 165 to 175 mph, and the damage track stretched 74 miles -- 29 in Oklahoma and another 45 in Missouri, where 15 people were killed.

"These storms are fairly rare to be that strong. The devastation was nearly complete in a few areas," Teague said. "Albeit isolated, there were some sections of neighborhoods where houses were just completely taken off the foundation. Gone."

Teague said four other tornadoes were reported in Oklahoma on Saturday night, including an EF-2 storm in Haywood with winds of up to 130 mph and another EF-2 twister south of Hartshorne with winds of up to 120 mph. An EF-0 tornado was reported over Lake Eufaula, and no rating had been assigned yet to a storm near Yanush in Latimer County.

The tornado could be the ultimate incentive for those 800 or so residents who have been reluctant to leave, now that most of their homes have been ruined, Sparkman said.

One of those residents, Sue Sigle, was hoping the government would offer more money for her home before she moves away from this pollution-scarred town. Then the tornado came.

As she began the task of salvage Sunday, Sigle kept a smile on her face, noting that she was fortunate to be visiting family in Missouri when the massive twister hit.

"I'm OK with everything," Sigle said. "The Lord is going to take care of anything. ... I was going to move anyway. I guess I'll just have to move sooner."

That sense of inevitability appeared to grip residents as they picked through the remnants of their homes. The lead and zinc mines that made Picher a booming town of about 20,000 in the mid-20th century closed decades ago; leftover waste has turned the area into an environmental disaster.

Many families have moved away to escape the lead pollution, taking advantage of state and federal buyouts in recent years. Piles of mine waste, or chat, have long towered over the town across a highway from the devastated neighborhood; they're now peppered with debris from homes flattened by the tornado.

"I think people probably have had enough," he said. "There's just nothing to build back to any more."

Some residents, like Sigle, were waiting for better buyout offers before their homes were damaged.

Gov. Brad Henry, who toured the area by air and on foot Sunday, said the buyout program won't stop just because homes were leveled. He went so far as to say he would "guarantee" that those awaiting buyouts who lost their homes would be treated fairly.

"We will make sure the people get the assistance that they need," Henry said.

Because of Picher's Superfund status, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is unlikely to grant assistance to homeowners to rebuild in the town, said Oklahoma Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood. But he echoed Henry's assurances about the federal buyout program, which is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the homes those crews likely will examine will be that of Jeff Reeves, 43, who has followed his grandfather and father as Picher's fire chief. He has lived in Picher all his life and has watched it slowly decline.

"With everything else that's going on here, I'm not sure there is a recovery," he said.

Among the first things Sigle looked for when she arrived at her house Sunday afternoon was her late husband's prize collection of Mickey Mantle memorabilia.

Friends already had removed a safe containing the collection from what used to be her bedroom, and she quickly opened the safe's door.

"Oh, hallelujah!" Sigle said when she saw the baseball cards -- Mantle grew up in nearby Commerce -- and an undamaged ball signed by the former New York Yankees star.

Sigle, who has taught second- and third-graders in Picher for 37 years, also found a slightly soiled T-shirt that read, in part, "Gorilla Spirit Lives On," a nod to the mascot of Picher High School, which will probably close in the next few years.

The storm will speed up what was probably going to happen anyway, she said.

"I know I lost a lot of junk. I guess it's time to clean up and see what I need."