Many have fled this depressed, pollution-scarred mining town. Those who have chosen to stay or have not yet relocated face a new heartache.
A tornado ripped through a 20-block swath of Picher late on Saturday afternoon, killing at least seven people. The same storm system then moved into southwest Missouri where tornadoes took the lives of at least 12 others, authorities said.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lieutenant George Brown said Picher’s victims included an infant. He said at least three people were confirmed missing.
“We’ve seen homes that were completely leveled to the foundation,” Brown said. “In a few of these homes you would have had to be subterranean to survive.”
Ottawa County Emergency Manager Frank Geasland said dozens of people were injured, some seriously.
“Trees are toppled over, ripped apart,” he said. “There are cars thrown everywhere. It looks like a bomb went off, pretty much.”
Many families have moved away from Picher to escape the lead pollution left by mining operations. The town’s population has dwindled from a peak of roughly 20,000 to about 800 people.
Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry issued a statement saying a major emergency response was under way. He planned to visit the area yesterday.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Picher and all of the other Oklahoma communities that have been impacted by the latest wave of severe weather,” Henry said.
At least 12 people were killed after severe storms spawned tornadoes and high winds across sections of southwestern Missouri, the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) said. Ten of the dead were killed when a twister struck near Seneca, about 30km southeast of Picher, near the Oklahoma border.
“They’re going over the hard-hit area and turning over everything and looking,” SEMA spokeswoman Susie Stonner said of emergency workers’ search for victims and assessment of damage. “It’s hard to do in the dark.”
The number of injuries across the area was not immediately available, though the Joplin (Missouri) Globe reported that more than 90 people from that region were being treated at Joplin hospitals.
In storm-weary Arkansas, a tornado collapsed a home and a business, and there were reports of a few people trapped in buildings, Weather Service meteorologist John Robinson said.