Tornado-ravaged Okla. town might not rebuild

May 12, 2008 7:25:33 AM PDT
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 Saturday night, killing at least six people in this northeastern Oklahoma town. Tornadoes killed at least 22 people in three states that night.

"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 and a Superfund site.

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.

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.

The tornado - spawned by storms that also killed at least 16 people in Missouri and Georgia - 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, said John Sparkman, head of the housing authority.

"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."