The Picher, Oklahoma tornado was one of several that combined to kill 26 people in the Midwest and the South, raising the nation’s 2008 total to about 100, the worst toll in a decade.
In Picher, the devastation was complicated by the town’s status as one of the most polluted Superfund sites in the nation. But Miles Tolbert, the Oklahoma secretary of the environment, said he did not think there was an immediate public health hazard to the 800 residents. He did say more testing is needed to be certain.
Long term exposure to lead dust poses a health risk, particularly to young children.
A tornado with the second-strongest rating killed seven people, destroyed a 20-block area and blew dust off mountains of mining waste, or chat piles.
“You can look at the chat piles and see that a lot of the material has blown off,” said John Sparkman, head of the Picher housing authority.
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. “We will make sure the people get the assistance 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.