Picking up the pieces

MARY DONNER takes some time from salvaging her belongings for a quick lunch while sitting on the front porch of her home in Pilger Wednesday morning.

PILGER — At lunch time Wednesday here, Mary Donner sat on the steps of her front porch eating a hamburger.

Behind her?

A caved-in roof, shattered windows, scattered belongings, broken doors and memories.

That's all that remained of her home.

"It still hasn't sunk in," Donner said calmly.

Donner's home on 155 N. Cuming St. used to be owned by her parents until they passed it on to her seven years ago.

But after the two tornadoes passed through Pilger on Monday evening, it was destroyed.

"I never thought I'd have to think about leaving it," she said.

When the tornadoes hit, though, Donner wasn't worried about her home. She was worried about her 10- and 13-year-old daughters who sought safety in the basement alone while she was at work.

"My initial response was to just find my kids," Donner said.

Her daughters are safe, but her house didn't fare as well — or even at all. Since the storm hit, she and her daughters are staying in a rental house in Wisner but spending most of their time sifting through the debris to look for salvageable belongings.

She's not alone, though.

Volunteers — up to 800 of them from across Nebraska and neighboring states — came to Pilger's aid Wednesday morning to help the town clean up after the tornado pillaged the town on Monday. They are working to clear the debris and recover belongings.

The number of volunteers, rescue teams, donated equipment and food, and local leaders made Pilger residents proud to live in Nebraska.

"It makes you feel good to be from Nebraska," said volunteer Jeremy Pochop, who came along with 24 other Nucor employees to assist in Pilger's recovery. "I don't know too many other places you could go and see this kind of volunteer effort."

Volunteers not only contributed time and effort to the town, but they also donated the use of equipment, such as payloaders, chainsaws and dump trucks.

Gene Kuhlanek, a volunteer from Howells, said he and his wife, Carolyn, were helping because it was such a monumental task.

"We're here because when we get home tonight, we'll have everything," he said. "The people here won't."

Brad Wolverton, 23, of Genoa grew up in Pilger and returned there Wednesday to help pick up the pieces of his family's homes.

His aunt and uncle, Betty and Tim Maly, lived across the street from the middle school among four other houses. Wolverton found the Maly home next to the school and across the street and began looking through the rubble for their things. He found clothes and jewelry.

"I came back to town last night and didn't even recognize it," Wolverton said. "Everything is gone. Nothing looks familiar."

Wolverton said a lot of people want to rebuild the town, but it's going to take time. With the help of the volunteers, he said it's possible.

"Everybody is looking out for everybody," he said. "That's the best part of being part of a small community."

Wednesday's volunteer work was a family affair for the Petersens.

Roy Petersen is a third generation farmer on land that was untouched by the tornadoes just outside of Pilger. Although Roy now lives in Stanton, he still owns the land bought by his grandparents when they moved to Pilger from Denmark.

Roy's daughter, Erica Hanton, felt called to help the town, especially after growing up there.

"My happy memories from childhood are here," Hanton said with tears in her eyes. "It's really difficult to digest everything that's happened. It was just a sweet little town and a wonderful place to grow up."

Hanton said she is just grateful to see all of the people ready to help the town recover.

Librarian Lori Ruskamp, like many others in town, shares the same sentiment.

"Seeing all of these volunteers puts me to tears," Ruskamp said. "I just can't thank people enough."

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