The 2008 tornado slammed into Picher, destroying more than 114 homes, taking the lives of six people, and injuring 150 more.
PICHER – Ten years ago at 5:39 p.m. on Saturday, May 10, 2008, Mother’s Day weekend, an EF-4 tornado destroyed much of what was left of the little mining town of Picher.
The day after the tornado in an interview with the Miami News-Record, Picher Fire Chief Jeff Reeves said, “We have been beaten down and beaten down...this may be the knockout punch.”
The tornado slammed into Picher, destroying more than 114 homes, taking the lives of six people, and injuring 150 more. Many of the homes destroyed had been vacated in the Tar Creek Superfund buyout of the former mining town plagued by lead contamination and unstable ground.
The deadly, fast-and-furious tornado with winds estimated at 165 to 175 miles per hour touched down near the Kansas-Oklahoma border 2.5 miles southwest of Chetopa, Kan., and tracked eastward.
When the powerful tornado struck Picher, it smashed homes and businesses and took lives. The tornado continued eastward, passing north of Quapaw and Peoria tracking 29 miles in Oklahoma with a maximum width of one mile before crossing Interstate 44 into Missouri.
The tornado then continued into southwest Missouri, causing another 15 fatalities, the vast majority in Newton County, Missouri, according to the NOAA assessment report.
Left behind that evening — a path of broken pieces, lives lost, and an estimated $61 million in damages in Picher.
“We had a little bit of a heads-up that the tornado was coming from Cherokee County and that it was heading toward the Picher area,” said Leon Crow, now assistant fire chief with the Quapaw Tribe Fire/EMS. He guesses residents were given only 10 to 15 minutes warning.
“At that time we were housed in Picher, and so we had our guys start deploying our vehicles to different locations along the path. I also personally received a phone call from Jodi Francisco (Wyandotte Fire Chief). It was Mother’s Day weekend, and we were having dinner there. I met him at the Wyandotte station, and we headed in,” Crow said five years after the tornado in an interview.
“When we pulled into town the sun was already out. Pulling into town and seeing the debris and everything it just, it just, really made you have to stop and think,” he said. “It just stopped us. If anybody tells you they had any other reaction, they’re lying to you.”
Reeves, who lived in Picher then, as did most of his family, said he first learned of the approaching tornado from intercepting a radio call coming from Welch saying they had spotted the tornado on the ground.
“I immediately started into town, and I could see it on my way in. I watched it all the way into town,” Reeves said. “It was devastating. It was just, I don’t know, it was indescribable. The fears and wanting to get everybody notified. It was tough. It was a tough go.”
He made as many phone calls as he could, to account for family and friends, as he drove.
“We actually sat at Rascal’s Truck Stop and watched it go across the highway right up in front of us. We knew we had fire crews on the ground in there,” Reeves said. “As a matter of fact, we could see two of our trucks coming out of town just ahead of it. As it crossed it kind of enveloped those two trucks, and those two trucks rolled right on out of it. Those guys are not only my employees, but my friends. It was difficult.”
“Jodi and I met up with Jeff (Reeves, now Quapaw Tribe Fire/EMS Chief) there and got started on a game plan,” Crow said. “Then what we did from there was, on the back of Jodi’s Fire Chief’s car, it was white, we started marking out grids of the town to search on the back of it. We didn’t have a clipboard or nothing, so Jodi said, ‘Let’s use the back of the trunk and markers.’ Actually, still today, you can kind of see the outline.”
Reeves said they had all the injured out of Picher within 45 minutes.
“We transported by ambulance or air, at least 50 people,” he said, “We had great mutual aid.”
Thanks to the grid system and all of the area agency’s immediate assistance, within two hours the entire town of Picher had been searched twice before sundown for fatalities and trapped or injured survivors.
“Search and Rescue came in and did another complete search the next day, and they found no one. Our guys did a really good job, and it all came down to mutual aid, and it really fell into place,” Reeves said.
Crow and Reeves said other agencies were on the scene immediately, doing all they could and whatever was needed. The town was flooded with a surge of people trying to check on family and friends and those wanting to pitch in to help. “We had tons more help than we needed.”
This allowed them to relieve others and send emergency-service personnel back to their posts where they were needed until morning when Task Force One arrived to take over the recovery operations.
“We were trying to get the roads blocked so we could get the helicopters in. At one time there were seven or eight transporting the injured,” Crow said. “It was dangerous. We had gas leaking everywhere, the electric lines were all over town, and then just trying to keep people from coming in.”
Crow described survivors as being in a state of shock.
Asked what it was like to rescue people in your own area that you know well, Crow said, “It’s tough. I’ve been a Wyandotte boy all my life and known a lot of Picher people, and I could imagine what Jeff was feeling at that time. It was just so surreal...you have all these emotions running through you, and you’re not going to control any of them at that point.”
“I knew them. I knew everybody,” Reeves said. “Early on the first 30 minutes, I don’t know that I held it together. But after that, everything fell into place. I don’t know how people got out of some of the residences. We got good help there. We got all the people taken care of.”
He told of one small storm shelter where 19 people were huddled together. They both are grateful there weren’t more fatalities, but were brokenhearted over the lives lost.
Reeves parents', son’s and his own home were destroyed in the tornado.
Asked what it was like to lose a home, he said: “Your home is something that you invest everything you have in. You’ve taken care of it for years and kept it up and kept it nice, and all of a sudden you go look at it and there’s no roof on it....a lot of stuff was gone. We didn’t even find pieces of things.”
After the first day, he said the need to provide food, water, and shelter for those working on the recovery was the main issue. Reeves said the City of Picher, the community and businesses stepped up and provided resources, everything they could ask for –water, food, generators refrigerated trucks and more.
“The ironic thing is we had just taken over the Fire and EMS on May 1 from the City of Picher,” Reeves said. “Our guys were phenomenal.”
Reeves and Crow said that the Quapaw Fire/EMS and other area agencies’ experience with the Picher tornado helped them when they were called to the Joplin tornado in 2011 to assist.
The town of Picher was in the middle of the buyout process due to its designation as a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Tar Creek Superfund site for its lead contamination from mining. After the tornado, the federal government decided that there would be no aid given to rebuild, and the buyouts would continue.
“The recovery was different. It was August before they got in there to clean up, so all that (debris) sat. Every day, coming to work, you had to drive through that. I think it started to eat at everybody,” Reeves said. “The tornado expedited the buyout process...You had to think at some time enough is enough, you can only take so much.”
Reeves said Picher residents are resilient people and they have weathered much and most are now thriving. “I’ll say this ‘til I die – Through all the bad, I just want people to see the good that came from Picher. The mining supplied 80 percent of the lead for two wars. The government needs to clean it up, and fix it and acknowledge the town’s history. When the tornado hit, it changed a lot of lives, it changed a lot of people.”
Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.