(AP) Survivors began cleaning up from a deadly blast of storms and tornados that killed 22 people in three central U.S. states over the weekend. Officials said this year is the country's deadliest for tornado-related deaths in a decade.
In Picher, the devastation was complicated by the town's status as one of the most polluted sites in the nation. The government's Environmental Protection Agency planned to check Monday for high levels of lead, which can pose a health risk in the long term, especially to young children.
Several tornados combined to kill 22 people in Oklahoma, Missouri and Georgia over the weekend, raising the nation's 2008 total to about 100, the worst toll in a decade.
This year is on pace to see the most deaths since 130 people were killed in 1998, the eighth highest total since 1950, according to the National Weather Service. The record is 519 tornado-related deaths in 1953.
On Saturday, a tornado with the second-strongest rating killed six people in the 800-population town of Picher, destroying a 20-block area and blowing dust off mountains of mining waste, or chat piles. Authorities patrolled the area overnight into Monday to prevent looting.
The tornado's winds were estimated at 165 mph to 175 mph, and the damage track stretched 74 miles - 29 in Oklahoma and another 45 in Missouri, where 15 people were killed. On Sunday, storms rumbled across Georgia, killing one person.
Because of Picher's pollution, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is unlikely to grant assistance to homeowners to rebuild in the northeastern Oklahoma town, said the state's emergency management director, Albert Ashwood.
Many families have moved away to escape the lead pollution, taking advantage of state and federal buyouts in recent years. Oklahoma 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.
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.
Meanwhile, on the East Coast, heavy rain knocked out power to tens of thousands of customers, flooded roads and chased people out of their homes, mostly in the region near Washington, D.C.
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