That Town Must Close for Good

On 10 May 2008, a long-track, violent (EF-4) tornado crossed parts of Oklahoma and Missouri, and laid further waste to much of the old mining town of Picher, barely south of the Kansas-Oklahoma line. NWS Tulsa has a nice, concise, online briefing about the tornado, which killed six people and injured at least 150 others in Picher before causing even more casualties in Missouri.

The tornado only has hastened the inevitable demise of Picher (AP story). Once sporting a population of 20,000, only around 800 folks remain. Picher lies inside the notorious Tar Creek Superfund site (more information here and here). Federal and state officials are doing the right thing by not funding any rebuilding, and instead directing relief toward relocation of the folks who remain.

While I still wish they had taken this approach on a larger scale with New Orleans, post-Katrina, it seems the lesson has been learned to some extent. Common sense and rational thought prevail over sentimentality, as it should. Government buyouts of homes already were underway, and should accelerate. Evacuating and demolishing the town now is the simplest and most prudent solution.

Now I only will grieve for those whose lives were lost, because I grieved for the long-dying town itself long ago, on my first and only daylight visit. Steve Corfidi and I were on a storm chase trip from Kansas City, back in March 1996, on the way to the Nowata area. As we zigzagged through town, we sat aghast at the deplorable state of Picher. Though it was just a few minutes from 12 years ago, those mental images linger vividly today.

Ramshackle frame houses abounded, some abandoned, others occupied. A few of the occupied homes were in worse conditions than those long vacant, with busted windows, peeling paint, rotting wood, torn screen doors, animals running hither and yon, some porch overhangs leaning downward on the verge of collapse. One entire house had a roof displaced noticeably sideways from the foundation, its walls leaning in the direction of the displacement, clothes on a clothesline in the yard, the glow of a TV shining from within. The only thriving businesses we saw were a bar and a convenience store. We since have talked often of the extreme disrepair and poverty we witnessed, and the status of Picher as part of the Superfund site.

Perhaps the saddest sight was the dirty, shirtless children playing in the yellowish mud that had drained directly off a big heap of mine tailings looming behind one house. This rock detritus (locally known as “chat”) comprises mini-mountains in the countryside around Picher, as well as in portions of the town itself. The “chat piles” contain residue of the materials for which they were extracted: lead and zinc, as well as cadmium. The lead, in particular, has been the focus of concern because of its drainage from the tailings piles and into soil, as well as airborne dust contamination, and elevated lead levels in children and adults there.

Whomever that whomever wishes to blame for the situation, the fact is that the area is highly toxic. It needs to be evacuated and remediated, not lived within. Those poor townsfolk have been residing in a festering wasteland (literally!) for decades, and now a substantial chunk of the town is blown to smithereens by a big fat tornado. Some folks didn’t want to leave, but I hope this changes their minds. I applaud the notion of just helping the citizens of Picher to get the hell out and never return. Leave whatever’s left of the town to the bulldozer and environmental mitigation process. The abandonment of Picher should have happened long ago, and it’s terrible that it appears to take a killer tornado to finish off the town, effectively.

This is not an occasion to celebrate, mind you. People perished! But perhaps some good can come from a bad event — a blessing in disguise, of sorts. If all goes as hoped, a tornado never again will kill Picher residents, and kids never again will play in lead-contaminated mine waste there.


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