Rebuilding unlikely in tornado-ravaged Okla. town

By: weather Email
By: weather Email

Associated Press Writer

PICHER, Okla. (AP) -- No government money will be awarded for rebuilding any of the 114 homes leveled by a deadly tornado that tore through one of the nation's most polluted areas, state and federal officials said Tuesday on a tour of the region.

Saturday's tornado 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 at a news conference held amid homes destroyed by the twister. He was joined by David Paulison, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry.

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.

"No matter how many times you go to disasters, it still gets you every time," Paulison said, promising that FEMA will continue its work in Picher "for the long haul."

The tornado struck the heart of a federal Superfund site, where a government buyout of homes is under way in an area beset with mine collapses, open shafts, acid water that stains Tar Creek orange and mountains of lead-contaminated waste. Local children have tested with dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

The Environmental Protection Agency has begun testing to determine whether the tornado scattered enough mining waste to raise lead levels in the air and soil in the 800-person town, which was once a thriving hub of 20,000 people.

The buyout will not prevent federal disaster aid from flowing to the area, Henry said, but the aid will help people relocate, not rebuild homes in the area.

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

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.

As people in the region struggle to clean up damage and put their lives back together, there was potential for more severe weather. A light rain fell in Picher during the mid-afternoon, but it didn't appear to slow residents who continued sifting through debris piles.

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 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."

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