Latest story: A 'war zone': Tornadoes destroy more than half of Pilger, local leaders say; child killed

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A powerful storm moved across northeast Nebraska on Monday afternoon, leaving in its wake reports of significant damage, injuries and at least one death in and around the town of Pilger. 

The Stanton County Sheriff's Office confirmed late Monday that the person who was killed was a 5-year-old child. It didn't specify the child's gender.

The National Weather Service says at least two tornadoes touched down, and Stanton County Commissioner Jerry Weatherholt says at least one of the tornadoes destroyed more than half of Pilger.

Authorities said the first tornado touched down around 3:45 p.m. and downed several power lines before it leveled a farmhouse. Four people were trapped inside.

While local crews removed them from the debris, a second tornado was spotted southwest of Pilger, according to the Stanton County Sheriff's Office. Shortly afterward, the town suffered a "direct hit" that leveled several buildings, including the Fire Department building, the Sheriff's Office said.

Several people near Main Street in Pilger suffered critical injuries, including the child, who later died.

The town was evacuated, with residents being bused to the Red Cross Shelter at the Wisner-Pilger High School in Wisner.

Faith Regional Health Services in Norfolk is reporting that at least 20 people are injured, including 16 in critical condition, and that one person is dead. Other area hospitals reported at least 11 more injured people. 

Gov. Dave Heineman has declared an emergency, said Sue Roush, a spokeswoman. That declaration will allow him to send in the Nebraska National Guard, which is on standby. Heineman will travel to Pilger on Tuesday morning to survey storm damage.

Emergency responders are working in Pilger, Wisner and Stanton conducting searches for people trapped under debris, according to a statement from the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.

The agency has had reports of damage from local emergency managers in Cuming and Wayne Counties.

"We are still in a response mode in these communities," Earl Imler, NEMA operations manager, said in a statement. "We are collecting damage reports from local officials on the ground."

A team of six agency staff members will be going to the area Tuesday to provide support for local responders. National Guard members will be deployed with them to assist local responders and begin to help as needed with cleanup.

NWS meteorologist Barbara Mayes said the tornadoes that touched down were about a mile apart.

The tornadoes did not hit Stanton, but they caused extensive damage in Pilger and some rural areas around that town of about 380. At least one of the tornadoes lifted off the ground several times before touching down again.

Significant damage in Pilger

Stanton County Commissioner Jerry Weatherholt described the scene in Pilger as looking “like a war zone.”

“Houses are plumb gone,” he said. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

Weatherholt, 75, said it appeared the tornado went through the middle of town, “completely obliterating” Main Street. He estimated that about three-fourths of the homes in Pilger were damaged.

“The co-op is all gone,” he said. “The office buildings, the convenience store, all the bins. It’s all gone. It’s just all gone. The big Lutheran church on the east side of town is all gone.

“It’s terrible. It’s really terrible.”

Gregg Moeller, who works for the Wisner-Pilger school system, said the Pilger school building also appeared to have suffered significant damage.

"It was like God dragged two fingernails across the the land," he said.

Even brick buildings had suffered damage, with bricks tumbled to the ground in piles, and some were leveled. Cars were flipped over, trees were stripped of leaves. 

'It's total devastation'

Unger, the sheriff, 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.

The American Red Cross set up at shelter at Wisner-Pilger High School in Wisner for those affected by the storms, said Tina Labellarte, Nebraska Southwest Iowa region executive for the Red Cross.

"I don't expect a big population at the shelter, but we are there for the people who need it," she said, noting that people generally stay with family and friends.

Other Red Cross shelters will be on standby, waiting for requests from emergency management to open if needed, Labellarte said.

Individuals can register or search the safe and well listings at www.redcross.org/find-help. The public can help by donating at www.redcross.org/ne/omaha.

Linda and Jack Hewitt and their dog, Cookie emerged from their home’s basement in Pilger to find windows shattered and the roof pierced with giant holes. In the distance, they saw the tornado moving east.

The couple, who have lived in Pilger for 35 years, said they planned to stay at the high school shelter Monday night.

Said Linda Hewitt, “I never thought this would happen to Pilger.”

Southern part of Pilger hardest hit 

After the storm went through, firefighters and police officers went door to door, checking houses. Ambulances were seen in the area. Heavy equipment also was on the move in town. A road grader was being driven down the street, clearing debris.

A lot of stop signs and street signs were simply gone. Fields on the edge of town also were hit, with center pivots overturned.

The storm did the most damage to the southern part of the community, while buildings and homes in the north part of Pilger were spared major damage. The storm appeared to have traveled from the southwest to the northeast through the community.

The Nebraska State Patrol has closed Nebraska Highway 24 from Norfolk to Stanton and shut down U.S. Highway 275 and Nebraska Highway 15 in Stanton County, said Deb Collins, a spokewoman for the patrol. 

"We are requesting motorists stay off the roadways so we can get emergency services into the area," Collins said.

Brian Davidson, a freelance photojournalist, said every structure he could see for five or six blocks in Pilger had been damaged.

"There's no street signs left," Davidson said. "Cars are tossed."

He also saw a car inside a home. "It's very chaotic here right now."

Rode out the storm at destroyed co-op

Ryan Kruger and five of his co-workers rode out the storm in a vault at the Farmer's Co-operative. 

They listened as the air churned and swirled around them.

"Our ears started popping ... and we heard a swishing sound," he said."About the time we figured it was over, the roof caved in.

"Two minutes — that's all it took."

Cheryl Husmann said her husband, Lyle, was in Pilger when the tornado struck, but he found refuge in the Village Cafe, along with others.

"They're OK, but there's a lots and lots of damage" to the town, she said.

Husmann said early reports are that the post office in Pilger, the bank and a Lutheran church all may have suffered significant damage.

Found refuge in relative's basement

Pilger farmer Gene Oswald was in town when he realized the weather was turning for the worst.

About 15 minutes before the tornado hit, he and his nephew fled to a family member’s basement.

At one point, Oswald said, his nephew peeked outside from the basement window.

“He said, ‘Gene, there’s stuff flying above the co-op,” Oswald said.

“When (the tornado) hit,” Oswald continued, “I never heard such a terrible noise in my life.”

When they emerged, Oswald saw downed trees, power lines and grain bins "pretty much destroyed."

“There are some houses in town that are completely gone,” he said.

Oswald said he was thankful his family suffered no injuries, and that his daughter’s personal items and his 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle stored at a property on the north side of town were intact.

“We’re just so thankful to the Lord,” he said.

Eric Anderson, a storm chaser with Tornado Raiders, said he and his crew saw both the main tornado that hit Pilger and a smaller one.

They were not able to enter the town. Emergency officials were not letting anyone enter at that time. 

"It's a mess," Anderson said.

He and his crew continued north and east tracking the storm past Pender, heading toward Emerson.

Damage in Stanton area

Stanton County Commissioner Dennis Kment said a home six miles north of the City of Stanton was leveled and trees, power lines and items from inside the home littered the property.

“(The storm) 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, noting that in some places, the storm’s path appeared up to a half-mile wide.

He said the family who lived at the home north of Stanton holed up in their basement when the storm hit.

“We’re just kind of picking through stuff now,” Kment said. “We did find the wedding photos.”

Faith Regional Medical Center in Norfolk has confirmed one fatality from the storm and 20 people injured, with 16 patients in critical condition.

Other hospitals that reported receiving patients:

>>Creighton University Medical Center received one patient in critical condition.

>>St. Francis Memorial Hospital in West Point had received five patients with minor cuts and bruises.

>>Pender Community Hospital had received three patients with minor injuries.

>>Providence Medical Center in Wayne was expecting two patients with unknown injuries.

Threat continues tonight; Omaha outside of major risk area

The National Weather Service is advising people that the threat of tornadic thunderstorms persists in northeast Nebraska and northwest Iowa into this evening. Very large hail and damaging winds also are threats.

The storms should push east by about midnight.

The Omaha and Lincoln areas are outside of the areas at greatest risk. Neither community currently is under a tornado watch.

The storm forecast for Omaha from the NWS: "There is a chance of evening thunderstorms ... a few storms may approach severe limits and be accompanied by large hail and damaging winds."

In this map, those areas under a tornado watch are in yellow. The dark red is threat of flooding from heavy rains, and the cherry red is the tornadic storm currently grinding toward Sioux City.

This map shows the tornado watch farther west into central Nebraska. The orange splotch is a severe thunderstorm, which is damaging in its own right.

More NWS weather warning information

Stay with Omaha.com for more on this developing story. Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Monday morning storm

A line of thunderstorms that included some large hail moved west to east from central Nebraska into northwest Omaha and western Iowa late Monday morning. The brunt of the storm appeared to have skirted northwest Omaha, striking areas to the west and north of town, such as Elkhorn and Bennington, before pushing east into Iowa.

Eastlack said golfball-sized hail was reported in west Omaha and quarter-sized hail was reported near 168th Street and West Maple Road on Monday morning.

He also said Eppley Airfield unofficially received a trace of precipitation Monday morning, Norfolk got .21 inches, Lincoln .28 and Tekamah .94.

Looking ahead

Cathy Zapotocny, also a meteorologist at the National Weather Service Office in Valley, said heat and humidity are likely to really kick in Tuesday and Wednesday, with a high Tuesday of 94 degrees and a heat index of 100.

Wednesday’s high will be 91 with a heat index in the upper 90s, she said. The heat index reading is combination of temperature and humidity.

More storms are likely Wednesday night, Zapotocny said, with a chance of those storms lingering into Thursday. The high temperature Thursday looks to be in the lower 80s.

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