PICHER, Okla. — 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. 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. 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.
Tornado hit a federal Superfund site
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.
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.
Risk of severe weather remains
As people in the region struggle to clean up damage and put their lives back together, another spate of severe weather approached.
The National Weather Service said that the risk of severe weather was upgraded from slight to moderate for the region Tuesday, but that the main concerns were damaging winds and hail.
"A lot of elements have to come together to produce tornadoes, and right now it doesn't look like there's going to be an outbreak of tornadoes," said forecaster Daryl Williams with the weather service's Norman office.
Even if the latest storms aren't particularly violent, they'll make for a soggy cleanup in towns such as Picher, where Tressie Gilmore and four family members emerged from a pile of debris that used to be their house Saturday evening, shaken but with nothing worse than bruised ribs.
On Monday, the 25-year-old joined family and friends in salvaging what they could from 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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