PILGER — Five years after the devastating tornado destroyed part of this community, much of what was damaged has been rebuilt or recovered.
But that doesn’t mean there still aren’t pieces that need to be put back together again.
The main concern for many Pilger and area residents is the population loss after the tornado struck. The town temporarily went from more than 350 to around 100 residents after many people relocated. It has since rebounded to a population of about 250.
The population loss, not surprisingly, had an effect on the number of businesses able to be open.
Ryan Kruger, who lives just outside of Pilger and works at the Farmers Co-op in town, was in Pilger the day of the devastating storm.
“I’d like to see more people moving into town to get (the population) back to where it was before the tornado,” he said.
Along with Kruger, Jeff Warren of Pilger also would like to see more residents moving to Pilger.
“We need more kids and families,” Warren said.
One issue that may have affected the relocation of families is the impact of the storm on the Wisner-Pilger school district. Before the tornado, Pilger was home to a school building that served several elementary grades of students.
But it was destroyed in the storm and, after much discussion, the Wisner-Pilger school board decided to expand to the existing facility in Wisner rather than rebuild in Pilger.
Warren isn’t convinced the school issue has been all that much of a factor in Pilger’s population decline.
“I don’t think the move of the schools to Wisner affects people too much,” Warren said. “It’s not that big of a deal.”
In fact, Warren said he thinks families considering a move to Pilger should look at the situation as having a strong school district just a few miles away in Wisner.
Another issue is available housing in Pilger.
Several people said they want to see more houses built for families and younger couples.
Lyle Husmann, a farmer who lives 5 miles from Pilger, has been farming on this property for 56 years.
“Somehow, we have to convince people to build houses,” he said.
Husmann also is concerned about the lack of amenities for people in Pilger.
“We’re isolated. There isn’t a grocery store, and there isn’t going to be for only 150 people,” he said.
While there may not be a grocery store, the Pilger Pride convenience store has been a welcome addition for people both in Pilger and in the surrounding areas. Julie Raabe is the manager of the store and is happy for the success and help that it has been so far.
“We get a lot more traffic through here,” Raabe said. “It’s the only store in town and people really like it.”
Becky Hauf, who works at the Farmers Co-op and is a frequent shopper at Pilger Pride, not only lost her home during the tornado, but also her two previous places of work. She is thankful for the convenience store and is proud of how popular it has become.
“It’s a booming little business,” she said. “I think it’s been a very good asset for the community.”
Both Raabe and Hauf would like to see more houses and apartments for people to move into, as would Angela Denton, who helped coordinate recovery efforts throughout the five years since the tornado.
“We need more reasons to draw people to Pilger,” Denton said. “We are trying to get those empty lots filled.”
She has full faith in the community and in the efforts that community leaders are taking to make Pilger better than ever.
“The rest will come with people. It all just takes people,” Denton said.
Through the storm and the rebuilding, the community has grown closer and tighter together, residents said.
“We are a well-knit community,” Raabe said. “People do things for each other and it’s not like other places.”
Those who call Pilger home are resilient, Denton said.
Resilience seems to be the theme for the community, given how well it has come back from such a horrible storm.
“Looking back after five years, it’s gone by quickly considering the amount of stuff that we’ve accomplished and the amount of cleanup that has happened,” Kruger said.
As Pilger continues to grow stronger, the future for the town and for the people looks bright.
“When they talk about the town-too-tough-to-die, they are right. Everybody came back and made the town a lot stronger and a lot better,” Kruger said. “I look forward to seeing the next few years and what we could do with this town.”