Picher, Okla., Home of Superfund Site, Won’t be Rebuilt, Officials Say

May 15, 2008

State and federal officials toured Picher, Okla., which was ravaged by a tornado on May 10, and essentially drilled 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. The storm will likely hasten, rather than delay, the buyout process, he said.

The May 10 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 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 in Ottawa County.

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 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 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.

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