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Store may not rise from ruins as Mulhall rebuilds

Updated:
MULHALL, Okla. (AP) -- What's new in this tiny prairie town of 160?

For starters, the fire station, family center, post office, grade school, churches, houses and a water tower.

There'll eventually be brand new water pipes, and all the streets could be paved within a year -- even the ones that have always been dirt.

A combination of government assistance, charity, insurance and local determination have helped Mulhall rise from the debris a year after a tornado destroyed 89 of its 116 structures.

Ample warning allowed the townspeople to seek refuge and avoid fatalities like those inflicted elsewhere by a wave of deadly twisters that strafed the state on May 3, 1999.

"People have really taken stock in what we have now because we have more and we'll have more in the future," said Mayor John Pangburn, a retired utility supervisor from San Diego who has presided over the town's resurrection. "To me it's really great. It's a terrible thing to go through psychologically and all that."

The rebirth is even inspiring visions of new industry, something Mulhall has traditionally lacked since it's mostly a bedroom community for workers at companies like Charles Machine Works in nearby Perry.

One thing missing is the convenience store.

The Farmer's Store provided bread, milk, beer and burgers, but the land where Jackie Pfeiffer's establishment stood is vacant and a big chunk of Mulhall's sales tax revenue is missing with it.

The store was the largest sales tax contributor, paying as much as $500 of Mulhall's $1,800 monthly collections before the storm.

Attempts to get government assistance to rebuild the store have been futile, Pfeiffer said.

Her $130,000 insurance settlement paid off a loan but wasn't enough for the $300,000 cost of replacing it. A thin profit margin rules out a conventional loan.

"I'm afraid we've been through every option imaginable," Pfeiffer said.

Pangburn insists he's optimistic that Pfeiffer or someone else will build a new store soon.

The town needs it, he said, socially as much as fiscally.

In the meantime, the city can get by with money in savings, gasoline tax revenues and funds set aside from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Operational costs are minute. A part-time worker mows and takes care of water meters and water and sewer system maintenance.

Pangburn gets $1 a month "whether I need it or not."

Assistance and donations have already built a new $40,000 red fire station.

The city is looking for $8,000 more to finish the interior.

Harrisburg, Penn., donated a fire truck and sent staff to train local volunteers. East Rutherford, N.J., gave Mulhall an emergency vehicle. The state provided a water tank truck for fighting rural fires.

The Methodist, Baptist and First Christian churches have been rebuilt or renovated. A grade school blown down by the storm is under construction while students go to school in nearby Orlando, where the high school for the Orlando-Mulhall school district has always been.

The town's population is down from about 200 because people had to migrate to find places to live after the storm, Pangburn said. But housing construction has helped the locals settle in.

About 20 houses -- 30 to 35 percent of residences -- are now doublewide mobile homes.

Others have been rebuilt from scratch or renovated, some with the help of volunteers that included Habitat for Humanities, the Methodists and Mennonites from Manitoba, Canada.

Storm cellars and safe rooms proliferate.

The storm brought another blessing in disguise: some old vacant homes were destroyed by the storm or kindly removed by cleanup crews.

Unfortunately, a few of the rickety old houses survived, the mayor said, but the storm blew down the 55,000-gallon,100-foot-tall water tower.

Insurance on the tower paid $160,000. FEMA committed to paying up to the $200,000 replacement cost, but the town learned it could put up a 75,000-gallon, 100-foot sphere for the same price.

Henderson, Ky.-based Pittsburgh Tank has started putting the tower and tank together.

A new $325,000 water system funded with grants and local contributions will replace old lead pipes.

Charles Machine Works is donating the equipment and labor to bore under a railroad and streets for new water lines.

United Co-op replaced crumpled grain storage elevators and stayed open, a relief since it also doubles as the town's only gas station.

"The board never considered not building back," said Bill Logue, a co-op employee.

Locals just hope the co-op eventually resumes fixing flats since nails are scattered liberally about.

The storm brought the townspeople closer together, the mayor said. Pangburn held regular monthly meetings and started a newsletter shortly after relief workers arrived to feed, clothe and help house displaced and downtrodden residents.

Pangburn said he urges discouraged residents to drive around town to revive their spirits.

"I guess I'm the manager of this disaster, and I guess I'm going to do that until everybody is back where they need to be," he said.
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