By JOSH FUNK
(PILGER, Neb., AP) — A storm packing rare dual tornadoes tore through a tiny farming town in northeast Nebraska, killing two people, crumpling grain bins like discarded soda cans and flattening dozens of homes.
Pilger’s 350 residents evacuated their homes after the powerful twisters slammed the area Monday afternoon. Nebraska State Patrol closed all roads into town.
“More than half of the town is gone — absolutely gone,” Stanton County Commissioner Jerry Weatherholt said. “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.”
Larry Nelson, 73, has lived in Pilger, about 80 miles northwest of Omaha, for 23 years. He rode out the storm in his neighbor’s basement, emerging later to find his home completely gone.
“I’m grateful I was over there,” Nelson said.
Another resident, Trey Wisniewski, said first his weather radio alerted him, then the power went out and the tornado sirens started to sound. The sky went black and he and his wife took their pets into the basement.
“My wife was holding our animals and I was holding on to my wife. We could feel the suction try to pull us out of there,” said Wisniewski, 43. “It wasn’t raining. It was raining debris.”
Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger estimated that 50 to 75 percent of Pilger was heavily damaged or destroyed and the school was likely beyond repair.
The storm was part of a larger system that tracked across the nation’s midsection Monday. More storms are forecast for Tuesday, stretching from eastern Montana to New York, but the system likely won’t be as powerful as on Monday, said Steve Corfidi, lead forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.
The greatest risk for tornadoes will be in the Dakotas, eastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming. Hail is expected west of the Mississippi River, while damaging winds could down some trees in upstate New York, Corfidi said.
Stanton County Sheriff’s deputy Josh Bennett said a 5-year-old girl was killed in Pilger on Monday. Bennett did not identify the child further or provide details about her death.
Unger said Tuesday that a motorist also died in a single-vehicle accident just east of Pilger as the storm pounded the area. State patrol confirmed that a male driver died in Cuming County.
At least 19 people were taken to hospitals.
The National Weather Service said the two twisters touched down within roughly a mile of each other. Crews planned to examine the area Tuesday to determine the intensity of the unusual twin tornadoes, said Barbara Mayes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Valley.
“It’s less common for two tornadoes to track together for so long, especially with that same intensity,” she said. “By no means is it unprecedented. But we don’t see it often.”
Residents were poised to return Tuesday morning to survey the damage and gather valuables. Sheriffs said law enforcement would escort residents to their properties.
Jodi Richey, a spokeswoman for Faith Regional Health Services in nearby Norfolk, said 16 people were treated there. Some were in critical condition but others were treated and released.
Providence Medical Center in Wayne treated three tornado victims, including two who had lacerations, said hospital spokeswoman Sandy Bartling. Two were released Monday evening, and the third was in stable condition.
Authorities said the first tornado touched down around 3:45 p.m. and downed several power lines before it leveled a farmhouse. The 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.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard was preparing 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. A shelter for displaced residents was established at Wisner-Pilger Jr.-Sr. High School in nearby Wisner.
Tornadoes also caused damage in Cuming and Wayne counties, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency said in a news release. Meteorologists also tracked a reported tornado near the town of Burwell, in central Nebraska.
Associated Press writer Grant Schulte in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.