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Oklahoma Town Faced Demolition Before Tornado


Now to the aftermath of a natural disaster here in the United States. State and federal officials in Picher, Oklahoma are trying to deal with damage from yesterday's deadly tornadoes. But the job is complicated by the fact that much of the town was slated for demolition before the storm hit. That's because the Oklahoma town is listed as one of the most polluted sites in the country. It's a former lead mining center. The town hung on for decades mainly because of the strength of the residents' love for their community.

Frank Morris is with member station KCUR and he joins me on the line from Picher.

Hello, Frank.

FRANK MORRIS: Hi, Michele. How are you doing?

NORRIS: I'm well. You covered lots of tornadoes all throughout the Midwest but this situation sounds pretty unusual.

MORRIS: Well, it is unusual because it's - at least in Picher, it's sort of a combination blow where this town has been through so much already. And then the tornado just kind of came in to sort of finish things off. But the tornados themselves are very strong. I mean, they're top strength tornadoes. I haven't seen the ratings but I think they were very, very strong and sustained. They traveled quite a ways on the ground, and in Picher they took out a lot of houses - a lot of them were empty. Over in Missouri, a lot of - more people died, though I don't think there was much damaged to structures.

NORRIS: Now, normally FEMA would come in, try to assess the damage. But in Picher it sounds like things would be quite different. You wouldn't do the kind of assessment that you would do in a more vital town.

MORRIS: Well, you - I mean the federal officials say that that's not the case, that they're going to do these assessments exactly as they do. Although, you know, those assessments have to take a lot of things in to consideration and one of the things, I think, is property value. And property values in Picher, Oklahoma are extremely low. You know, a lot of the town has been, you know, as much as condemned and as a place that - because of the subsidence issues. There is pollution and then it turned out they had a problem with the undermining of the town, which makes it prone to cave-ins. And so the value - home values in Picher are terrible. A lot of people are uninsured and a lot of people are just not going to have a roof over their heads - or an obvious way to have a roof over their heads after this is over, even with the federal money.

NORRIS: Now, some people don't want to leave. What's holding them there?

MORRIS: You know, they love this town. I mean, this is a scrappy, underdog, little town. You know, a lot of people have relations who were minors and, you know, there's just a tremendous civic spirit. These people are such underdog people. They have so many things going against them, but they're the nicest people in the world. And they love each other and they're very, you now, it's a close, close knit community, like you wouldn't see, I think, if things were working better for them.

NORRIS: As the saying goes, it may not look like much but it looks like home to me.

MORRIS: Oh man, yes. These people are dedicated to Picher, Oklahoma.

NORRIS: Thanks you so much, Frank.

MORRIS: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: That's Frank Morris of member station KCUR. He was speaking to me from Picher, Oklahoma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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