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Oklahoma Lawyers Making Equal Justice for all a Reality

Picher Pro Bono Project

Friday, May 30, 2008

  • Cindy Goble
  • Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, Inc.

Picher, a small town located in northeastern Oklahoma, was a booming mining town in the 1920-1930's. The major industry in the area was ore mining which produced concentrations of lead and zinc. Approximately 1,200 vertical mine shafts between 90 and 350 feet were constructed. Mining operations ceased in 1970 and all pumps were removed from the mines. The abandoned mines slowly filled with water until 1979 when all of the underground mines were completely flooded. The mining has subsequently caused serious environmental problems in that area. On May 10, 2008, the town was devastated by an F4 tornado.

Tar Creek has been a victim of the mine flooding and was dubbed most polluted body of water in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Lead and zinc has also seeped into groundwater, ponds, and lakes, many of which still are used for swimming. Since the children of Picher have been found to have elevated levels of lead in their bodies, the EPA has also declared Picher to be one of the most toxic areas in the United States.

The debris removed from the mines was ground into small rocks known as "chat." The "chat piles" are very toxic due to the lead content. The wind has blown lead across the area and children have been playing on the chat piles for years. Another danger that exists is the threat of collapse of the mine roofs also known as "cave-ins," which have already occurred. Many more "cave-ins" are expected as the pillars in the mines rot.

After years of planning and executing failed attempts to cure the problem and millions of dollars wasted, the federal government has implemented a plan to buy-out the area.

Picher was declared a federal disaster area by President Bush on May 14, 2008. On Saturday, May 10, 2008, an F4 tornado struck the town and left approximately 1/3 of the town in complete destruction. Six people lost their lives in Picher that day but the death toll could have been much higher if the tornado had struck during the week. Also, many homes were vacant due to the federal buy-out.

Legal Aid implemented a pro bono project to assisted low-income citizens in Picher. FEMA opened a Disaster Recovery Center on May 20, 2008. James Evenson, from our Legal Aid office in Jay, Oklahoma, staffed a table inside the Disaster Recovery Center on Thursday, May 22. I staffed the table Friday, May 23 and Saturday, May 24. We made contact with representatives from various agencies such as DHS, Red Cross, Grand Lake Mental Health Association, Small Business Administration, Picher Housing Authority and FEMA.

Since there were only a few people coming into the disaster recovery center, the decision was made to go out into the community to spread the word that we were there offering free legal services. A temporary FEMA employee accompanied me in an effort to reach out to those who may still need assistance. We visited the Head Start office and spoke with several employees. They were not aware of the availability of free legal services for low-income people in that area so I gave them a variety of our brochures to display and hand out as needed. We also visited a distribution center that was dispersing donated food, clothes, cleaning supplies, tarps, etc. to residents affected by the disaster. We talked to a couple of locals there about the services that were available for storm victims and gave them a few of our general brochures.

We also talked to a police officer in town and a religious group offering various services including counseling. We spoke with the owners, employees and a few patrons of the last restaurant in town about legal aid. They allowed me to leave brochures on a table where the disaster information was displayed.

The following issues of concern were raised:

1. A former Picher resident, raised issues regarding the federal buy-out (unfair property valuations). Although this gentleman does not qualify for our services, he was speaking for many that do. Homeowners really are at the mercy of the trust and have no real voice. One issue which may be a cause for concern, besides unfair valuations, is that homeowners are not allowed to see the appraisal until the day of closing.

2. A Picher resident, has been threatened by Dish Network if he does not reimburse them $600 for the dish satellite receiver that was destroyed by the tornado, they will file a lawsuit against him. The resident lost everything, including a puppy, in the tornado. He has been unable to locate any personal belongings, including the dish. This will likely be an issue affecting many Picher residents. The cases involving Dish Network would be good to refer to pro bono attorneys or perhaps a large law firm.

3. A Picher resident talked to me about his brother's situation. His brother's home had been bought out Thursday before the tornado hit on Saturday. He applied for content assistance and was told that since he had already been bought out there was nothing they could do for him. I spoke with representatives from SBA and FEMA together and inquired about whether any assistance would be available for renters or people who were in rightful possession of property after a buy-out (generally 90 days). After a short discussion about their differing opinions, it was resolved that both renters and those in rightful possession of property would be eligible to get money for contents. The brother has now been granted assistance. This potentially could impact many people.

4. A Picher resident, who is a veteran, qualifies for our services. I didn't complete an intake because I didn't really do "legal" work for him. He was living in his mobile home when the tornado struck. His home was displaced about 6 feet by the twister. Part of the roof was gone and he used fallen tree branches to support the rest of the roof. Additional rain the following week caused more of the roof to fall. I took him to the disaster assistance center. He had no idea he had already applied for FEMA assistance. He had about $1,300 directly deposited in the bank for rental assistance and content reimbursement. While we were there, he spoke with John Sparkman, executive director of the housing authority, and within 30 minutes had possession of a low-rental duplex. I also reminded him of the distribution center where he can get needed supplies.

5. A former resident had loaned his brother (above) his truck, which had basically been sandblasted by blowing chat and had the windows blown out. I told him to come down to the disaster assistance center and see if he could get money for damages so that the brother would be able to at least get the windows fixed. He talked to FEMA who said they couldn't help because the truck was not in the resident's name and that the former resident had other transportation available.

6. A couple came in solely because they heard I was there and that if we didn't get business the disaster assistance center would be closed. I gave them general information about legal aid and talked to them about their tornado experience. As it turns out, they had purchased a place in Miami that they were remodeling when the tornado struck, but they were still living in Picher. The home where they were living was completely destroyed. They had insurance so they would not be eligible for content assistance, but I suggested they talk to a FEMA representative about rental assistance (never hurts to ask). As it turns out they didn't qualify but they were thankful that I at least raised the issue. I also talked to them about the distribution center and to get the word out to everyone they know that such assistance is available.

7. There may be issues regarding clear title. In one instance the property in question is worth less than it would take to hire a lawyer to fix the title problem. We may get some requests for assistance. This type of case would be appropriate to refer to pro bono attorneys.

One lesson I learned is that it is not necessary to have prior approval to staff a table in disaster assistance centers. They plan on different agencies coming in so I wasted a lot of time trying to get an okay. I left plenty of brochures and cards at the disaster assistance center. Hopefully those who need help will get the information on how to contact us.


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