PILGER, Neb. — The twin tornadoes that raked across northeast Nebraska were part of an outbreak of twisters that left a path of death and destruction along a 60-mile swath of countryside Monday, including a direct hit on Pilger.
“It was like God dragged two fingernails across the land,” said Gregg Moeller of Wisner.
Two deaths were attributed to the tornadoes.
Calista Dixon, 5, died after suffering injuries inside a mobile home on Main Street in Pilger. Her mother remained at Creighton University Medical Center in critical condition.
David Herout, 74, of Clarkson died when his vehicle left County Road S about 4:50 p.m. as the storms moved. Herout was ejected from his vehicle, Cuming County officials said. Herout, a retired postal worker who had worked at post offices in Clarkson and Columbus, was making deliveries for an agricultural company, said a family friend.
More than two dozen people were injured, some critically.
Two damage survey teams the National Weather Service dispatched to northeast Nebraska posted preliminary tracks for three tornadoes Tuesday afternoon. Earlier preliminary analysis of radar images indicated that four twisters developed in the area.
Very early indications by midafternoon Tuesday suggest points of damage rated at least EF3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale west and north of Stanton and several EF4 damage points in Pilger.
Wind speeds are estimated at between 136 mph and 165 mph for an EF3 rating and between 166 mph and 200 mph for an EF4. An EF5 rating comes with the highest wind speeds.
The storm destroyed or heavily damaged an estimated three-fourths of Pilger, including the middle school, Midwest Bank, the co-op, a convenience store, post office, numerous houses, city hall, firehouse and St. John Lutheran Church. Main Street was hit especially hard, with no building untouched.
Gov. Dave Heineman toured Pilger on Tuesday and said the town will rebuild but the residents are in a state of shock.
“Look,” he said to one resident, “this is a tough little town that is not going to die, right?”
Nebraska has seen several damaging storms recently, but Heineman said this was by far the worst.
"We've been experiencing too much of this," he said.
He promised state aid however the town needs it. The National Guard has been deployed, and several guard members had already arrived by Tuesday noon.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who was also on the tour, said he had never seen such damage in Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District.
Fortenberry called the destruction "surreal."
He paused to point out damage – a convenience store with insulation all over the floor, a chair visible in an apartment above the Main Street bank. A wall on the apartments had been peeled away, allowing a look inside.
Fortenberry and Heineman also saw the damage from a helicopter.
“There’s a black, dark swath” that goes through town, he said.
Pilger is a Stanton County village of 360 people. It’s 80 miles northwest of Omaha and 20 miles east of Norfolk.
Residents huddled in basements, a vault, a meat locker and anywhere else they could find for shelter. When they emerged, their town was gone. Authorities evacuated the community Monday night and allowed residents to return Tuesday to survey the damage and gather valuables.
Village Board Chairman Jim Duncan returned to town after his face was patched up the night before. He said he lived on the south side of town.
“It was a red house,” he said. “Now it’s no house.”
Duncan said it'll get better from here.
"We've come through most of it," he said.
Farmer Gene Oswald was in town Monday afternoon when he realized that the weather was turning for the worse.
He and a nephew fled to a family member’s basement. At one point, Oswald’s nephew peeked from a basement window.
“He said, ‘Gene, there’s stuff flying above the co-op,’ ” Oswald said.
Ryan Kruger and five co-workers at the Farmers Co-operative piled into the co-op office’s vault. Other employees huddled in the meat locker of the Pilger Store next door.
“Our ears started popping ... and we heard a swishing sound,” said Kruger, of Norfolk. “About the time we figured it was over, the roof caved in.”
Stanton County Board member Jerry Weatherholt described the post-tornado town as “like a war zone.”
“Houses are plumb gone,” he said. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
Weatherholt, 75, said it appeared that the tornado went through the middle of town, “completely obliterating” Main Street.
“It’s terrible. It’s really terrible,” he said.
Mike Unger, the Stanton County sheriff, described the scene as “total devastation.”
Preliminary analysis of radar images indicated the rare dual twisters were two of four tornadoes that spun out of a line of thunderstorms, according to the National Weather Service station in Valley. The first broke out west of Stanton. The second developed east of Stanton and hit Pilger.
The third developed east of Stanton and merged with the second tornado. The fourth twister broke out north of Wisner and traveled toward Wakefield.
Meteorologist Barbara Mayes said twin tornadoes were unusual because both appeared to have similar strength. In most cases, she said, one tends to be larger and more powerful than the other.
“It’s less common for two tornadoes to track together for so long, especially with that same intensity,” Mayes said. “By no means is it unprecedented. But we don’t see it often.”
Tornadoes form from a supercell thunderstorm, which contains a large column of rotating air. It’s not uncommon for one twister to dissipate before another forms out of the same supercell.
But it’s much less common for the primary twister to keep going when the new one forms, producing the two simultaneously, said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center.
“Nothing says there needs to be a gap” between two tornado touchdowns, he told the Washington Post. “There usually is. Monday there wasn’t.”
Stanton County Commissioner Dennis Kment said a home six miles north of Stanton was leveled, and trees, power lines and items from inside the home littered the property.
The tornado “actually tore out the cement steps and dumped them about 10 feet from where they were,” he said.
Kment said damage around the Stanton area varied. He said the tornado’s path appeared up to a half-mile wide in places.
He said the family that lived at the home north of Stanton holed up in the basement when the tornado hit.
“We’re just kind of picking through stuff now,” Kment said. “We did find the wedding photos.”
Then the storm struck Pilger.
Sanford Goshorn, Stanton County emergency management official, said two twisters merged south of town “over the (Elkhorn) River” before tearing into the village.
The weather service alerted residents as early as 3:41 p.m. that a tornado was headed toward them and would arrive at 4:10 p.m. At 4:12 p.m., the weather service said it would arrive 4:15 p.m. The storm hit about 4:18 p.m.
Larry Nelson, 73, lived alone in a small house that was stripped down to its cinderblock foundation. He survived the storm in a neighbor’s basement because his house had only a crawl space. The neighbor’s house had tree branches impaled in the side of the structure.
The storm continued on through the northwest corner of Cuming County, the southeast corner of Wayne County, western Thurston County and into Dakota County. Mayes said meteorologists believe it stopped producing tornadoes just short of Sioux City, Iowa.
But the storm already had done its worst in Pilger.
Brick buildings were reduced to rubble. Cars were flipped and trees stripped of leaves. Center-pivots irrigation systems were overturned.
Giant grain bins on the south side of town were torn apart. Residents said at least one landed on the north side of town near the water tower, which was untouched.
Firefighters and police officers went door to door, checking houses.
Rescue teams and ambulances from several neighboring communities responded to Pilger. Farmers and businesses provided heavy machinery to clear debris.
The Nebraska State Patrol closed Nebraska Highway 24 from Norfolk to Stanton and shut down U.S. Highway 275 and Nebraska Highway 15 in Stanton County.
The governor declared an emergency Monday evening, said Sue Roush, a spokesman.
A team of six Nebraska Emergency Management Agency staff members were in the area Tuesday to help local responders.
The American Red Cross set up at shelter at Wisner-Pilger High School. Many people moved in with family and friends in neighboring communities.
Oswald, the farmer who sheltered in a basement, was just glad he and his family suffered no injuries.
“We’re just so thankful to the Lord,” he said.
With the large amount of destruction in Pilger, Unger said, “there definitely should have been multiple fatalities.” The town had a 10-15 minute warning before twister struck.
“We’re small-town America,” Unger said. “... Our motto is we’re a town too tough to die.”
World-Herald staff writers Nancy Gaarder, Jourdyn Kaarre, Roseann Moring, Kate Howard Perry, Alissa Skelton and Ryan Soderlin contributed to this account, which also contains material from the Norfolk Daily News and the World-Herald News Service and the Associated Press.
Forecast: Eastern Nebraska, western Iowa
— Tuesday: Gusty east winds of 20-35 mph should become southerly strong winds by afternoon. Cathy Zapotocny of the National Weather Service Office in Valley, Nebraska, said an outflow boundary moving through southeast Nebraska was causing the strong winds. Look for a high in the mid-90s with a heat index, with combines temperature and humidity, of 100. Slight chance for severe weather in northeast Nebraska and western Iowa.
— Wednesday: Temperatures around 90-95 with a heat index of 100, Zapotocny said. Omaha area might see an isolated storm, with a chance for showers and thunderstorms Wednesday night into Thursday in the area as a cold front moves in.
— Thursday: Chance for showers and thunderstorms in the area continues through the day, Zapotocny said. Conditions should be cooler, with a high in the mid-80s.
NPPD has its hands full after tornado
An assessment by the Northeast Nebraska Public Power District in Wayne indicated a tornado was on the ground for 14 miles along a south-to-north line parallel to but two miles east of Nebraska Highway 16/9 from west of Pender to southwest of Allen, said Mark Schults, general manager.
"Anything in that path is now gone," he said.
That left the utility with 300 to 400 damaged power poles, including some supporting high-voltage lines. The utility, which serves five counties from Pierce County to Dakota County, restored power for many customers Monday night. Between 300 and 500 people were without power by midday Tuesday.
But the lines aren't designed to carry that much load, he said, and it's getting hot. Crews from other utilities have come in to help, but getting customers completely restored will probably take until the end of the week.
More power outages
— Thousands of Iowans were without power Tuesday after severe storms packing high winds and heavy rain crossed the state. MidAmerican Energy had 29,000 customers without power in Des Moines; 116 were without power in Council Bluffs. Alliant Energy reported nearly 12,000 Iowa customers without power, including about 6,000 in the Cedar Rapids area.
— Nebraska Public Power District media relations specialist Mark Becker said Monday's storms knocked down three transmission lines: A line from Hoskins, Neb., east; a line from west of Dakota City to Hoskins; and a line north of the Stanton substation to the Stanton substation.
He said the storm also left two miles of conductor wire on the ground.
Also, he said, 627 customers in Wakefield had power restored by 9:30 p.m. Monday and 747 customers in Norfolk had power back on by 1:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Becker said power officials will not focus immediately on Pilger until the town begins to get back on its feet.