At least one person was killed and 16 others critically injured when a pair of tornadoes ripped through the northeast Nebraska town of Pilger Monday.
The National Weather Service said at least two twisters touched down within roughly a mile of each other. Emergency crews and residents spent the evening sorting through demolished homes and businesses in the town of about 350, roughly 100 miles northwest of Omaha.
“More than half of the town is gone — absolutely gone,” Stanton County Commissioner Jerry Weatherholt told the Associated Press. “The co-op is gone, the grain bins are gone, and it looks like almost every house in town has some damage. It’s a complete mess.”
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard was preparing to deploy to assist local emergency responders and help with the cleanup. Heineman and officials with the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency were expected to arrive Tuesday morning.
Victims were taken to three regional hospitals, with the 16 critically injured patients going to Faith Regional Health Services in Norfolk. Hospital spokeswoman Jodi Richey also confirmed that one other person had died from unspecified injuries.
Providence Medical Center in nearby Wayne treated three tornado patients, including two who had lacerations, hospital spokeswoman Sandy Bartling told the Associated Press. Two were released Monday evening, and the third patient was in stable condition, she said.
Stanton County emergency manager Sandy Goshorn told Fox News that the damage to the town of Pilger is “extensive.” He said in some areas everything is gone, even the trees. Goshorn also said officials are dealing with two hazardous material situations involving storage facilities for fuel, grains and corn. He said corn from the facilities is covering the town.
Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger estimated that 50 to 75 percent of Pilger was heavily damaged or destroyed in the storm. The local school is likely beyond repair, he said.
“It’s total devastation,” Unger said.
Unger said five people had to be rescued from a rural home day care northwest of Stanton. That home was hit just before the storm moved into Pilger.
Weatherholt said that the southern half of the town was completely leveled, and almost all of the town sustained damage.
Pilger was evacuated for the night, and the Nebraska State Patrol closed all roads into town. Most residents made their own arrangements, but some were taken to a shelter at Wisner-Pilger Jr.-Sr. High School in nearby Wisner.
About a dozen residents had arrived at the makeshift shelter by 9:30 p.m., and school officials were expecting more to come later, said Wisner-Pilger Schools Superintendent Chad Boyer. The shelter will remain open to residents for as long as needed to offer food, water, showers and cots, he said.
“I just have to use one word — devastation,” Boyer said by phone from inside the school. “It’s a tremendous loss all around the town. Certainly, our thoughts and prayers are with the community.
He said Wisner-Pilger Middle School, located in Pilsner, was heavily damaged by the tornado, but he hadn’t seen it up close.
Tornadoes also caused damage in Cuming and Wayne counties, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency said in a news release.
“We are still in a response mode in these communities,” said Earl Imler, NEMA’s operations officer. “We are collecting damage reports from local officials on the ground.”
Meteorologists with the National Weather Service were also tracking a tornado near the town of Burwell, in central Nebraska.