Residents of Storm Damaged Oklahoma Town Awaiting Cleanup

June 24, 2008

Propped up on a pile of debris that used to be a home in Picher, Okla., a door contains a painted message: “NOT DONE.”

Six weeks after a massive tornado struck this fading lead and zinc mining town, that sentiment — meant to let authorities know that the home’s owner hadn’t yet finished sorting through the pile — also describes the fledgling efforts to clean up the town after the disaster.

That process has been complicated somewhat by Picher’s location within a federal Superfund site and the ongoing process of a federal buyout of homes, including some of the 206 in the town destroyed by the EF-4 twister. The storm packed winds estimated at 165 to 175 mph and caused the deaths of seven people.

While those who had private insurance theoretically could rebuild their homes, it’s not likely many will choose that option, and those without insurance have no choice but to relocate.

Those left to run the city also face the question of how to pay for the town’s share of the cleanup costs and what to do with all the debris once cleanup efforts begin in earnest.

Picher “won’t ever come back,” said 43-year-old Jeff Reeves, who has lived in Picher his entire life and now serves as its fire chief, as did his father and grandfather. “As much as I hate to say it, it’s done.”

He said in the minutes after the tornado, one thought crossed his mind: “What more can this little town take?”

Once a thriving hub of 20,000 people, Picher’s population had dwindled to about 800 in recent years as residents accepted state and federal government buyouts and moved elsewhere. The Superfund area is beset with mine collapses, open shafts, acid mine water that stains Tar Creek orange and mountains of lead-contaminated mine waste, known as chat.

In the days following the May 10 tornado, scientists from the federal Environmental Protection Agency set up in Picher. EPA spokesman David Bary said that the agency was concerned about dust in the air that might have contained lead from the chat piles, “but we didn’t find any lead in the ambient air to cause any health-based concerns.”

Bary said the EPA also has monitored the air in the immediate area of the debris piles to check for materials that might have contained asbestos. He said that the agency hasn’t received any analytical data back yet, but will share any information from that research with state and county officials.

The EPA crews were planning to leave Picher, he said, as the town’s efforts turn toward cleanup.

Plenty remains to be done. Debris, such as sheet metal, that was blown into trees by the tornado remains, although the trees — stripped by the powerful winds — have again started growing leaves. Residents have salvaged most of what they could from what was left of their homes and a good number of the damaged vehicles have been moved.

Life in Picher now “is about as good as it can be, under the circumstances,” said Paul Sharbutt, whose home was destroyed. “… Everything here, it’s never going to be the same. You drive around at night, there’s no streetlights, no houses, nothing. All the landmarks are gone. It’s just sad. It really is.”

One of the few positive signs of life is located about a block from the town’s main intersection. In front of a park — shut down because it was deemed to be environmentally unsafe to kids to play there — stands a statue of a gorilla, a nod to the mascot of the local high school and its one state football title, won in 1984.

In the days before the tornado, the statue showed its age, with fading, chipped paint. But since the storm, city workers have repainted the statue in the school’s colors of red and black.

The spiffy-looking statue is a stark contrast to the dozens of debris piles dotting the storm-ravaged south end of town. A couple of pieces of heavy machinery have been moved in to start the massive project of clearing debris, but Picher Mayor Sam Freeman said the majority of the work can’t begin until the city hires a contractor, a process that could take until early next month.

Freeman, who lost his home in the tornado, said that “everyone that lives here is frustrated because it’s taken so long to start cleaning up” but that the process is complicated by numerous factors, including environmental concerns and the ongoing process of the buyout, which has left property in the hands of numerous different state and federal agencies.

Then there’s the cost of the cleanup, which local officials estimate will be about $5 million. Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Winston Barton said that agency will foot 80 percent of that, with the state to pay 12.5 percent and the city to pay 7.5 percent. Ultimately, Freeman said, the city is responsible for ensuring the debris is cleared.

Picher officials are “doing what they’re supposed to do and they’re doing it right,” Barton said. “From the FEMA standpoint, we’re ready to help them as long as they get the process done.”

The debris will be taken to a nearby construction and demolition landfill and should pose no health concerns, Bary said, because it will be covered up.

Most residents are just ready for their long nightmare to end so they can move on with their lives.

“I kind of feel like if Picher wasn’t in the situation that Picher’s in, this would probably already be cleaned up,” said Reeves, the fire chief. “I feel that each agency kind of wants the other to foot the bill, so to speak, or to contribute to the bill. I don’t know exactly what their hangups are, but I know we’re … six weeks into this thing and we’ve really not cleaned anything up. It’s all still laying around.”

Despite Picher’s trials, Reeves predicted there will be a few residents who will never leave.

“If I was 20 years older, I may never leave,” he said. “But the tornado changed that thinking a little bit.”

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