Tornadoes northwest of Pilger

This photo was shot by Mitch Schweers from atop the Wisner Elevator as a tornado heads northwest of Wisner.

PILGER --"It was like God dragged two fingernails across the land."

That's how Gregg Moeller of Wisner described the devastation after two tornadoes touched down in Northeast Nebraska and caused extensive damage to the community of Pilger.

"Oh my God, the damage is unbelievable," said Moeller, who teaches in the Wisner-Pilger school system.

Faith Regional Health Services in Norfolk reported early Monday evening that 15 people were in critical condition and two dead. In addition, five people had been treated and released. The hospital was expecting more individuals to require treatment as the evening progressed. Other area hospitals reported at least 11 people injured.

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.

"I know there's been extensive damage," she said.

The governor planned to tour the Pilger area Tuesday morning to see the damage for himself.

National Weather Service 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. At least one of the tornadoes lifted off the ground several times before touching down again.

About half of the school building in Pilger was destroyed by the storm. In addition, the post office in Pilger, the bank and a Lutheran church all appeared to have suffered significant damage. The Farmers Co-operative in Pilger also was basically wiped out, with grain bins and buildings destroyed.

Generally speaking, the damage did the most damage to the southern part of the community, while buildings and homes in the north part of Pilger were spared.

Jerry Weatherholt, a Stanton County commissioner, said the entire community of Pilger was evacuated Monday evening as a safety precaution.

The Village Cafe here proved to be a safe place Monday afternoon when the tornadoes struck this Northeast Nebraska community.

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.

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.

Brian Davidson, a freelance photojournalist, said every structure he could see for five or six blocks in the Stanton County community of 378 had been damaged. Some injuries may have occurred.

"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." Davidson talked with group of people who had sheltered in a vault in a bank and emerged OK.

Although Pilger was significantly damaged, the tornadoes also destroyed homes in rural areas throughout several counties in Northeast Nebraska.

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.

One tornado reportedly touched down shortly before 4 p.m. Monday north of Stanton before moving on and striking the town of Pilger.

The Jon and Crystal Hansen home near Stanton was destroyed by the storm. Mrs. Hansen and their children huddled in their basement and were not injured.

A motorist reported that debris and damage from the storm could be seen from Highway 275 near the former Tony's Steakhouse about 10 miles east of Norfolk. Several houses on the south side of the highway one mile west of the former restaurant appeared to be destroyed.

Downed power lines were still running across Highway 275, but motorists were driving other them, the motorist said.

There were reports that several farms in the Wayne area also had been destroyed.

Moeller said Wisner itself wasn't struck by tornadoes, but they touched down northwest of the community, causing significant damage to one of the many feedlots in the area.

"One of my speech team members got hold of me and said her family's home was gone," he said.

Earlier in the afternoon, as the storms began to begin their trail of devastation, members of the Troy Kremlacek family west of Stanton took shelter in their basement only to be trapped inside temporarily. All four family members were later able to be rescued from the basement.

Providence Medical Center in Wayne was under a code yellow alert to prepare for mass casualties, hospital spokeswoman Sandra Bartling said.

The hospital has sent ambulances to Wakefield and Pilger.

"We don't know the number of people and we don't know what they'll find," Bartling said.

In Wisner, efforts already were underway to provide food and emergency shelter for those impacted by Monday's storm.

Larry Bockelman, mayor of Wisner, said members of the Wisner Women's Fire Auxiliary are preparing sandwiches for 300 people who may be seeking shelter there. The American Red Cross is bringing in more supplies. The Cuming County Emergency Manager asked them to prepare for that many people Monday night.

Jodie Fawl, Nebraska Emergency Management information officer, said emergency responders were working Monday evening in Pilger, Wisner and Stanton conducting searches for people trapped under debris. 

Nebraska Emergency Management Agency has had reports of damage from local emergency managers in both Cuming and Wayne Counties.

“We are still in a response mode in these communities,” said Earl Imler, NEMA operations officer. “We are collecting damage reports from local officials on the ground.”
The American Red Cross was on the scene and opened a shelter at Wisner-Pilger High School for those impacted by the tornado.

The Daily News has seven staff members in various parts of Northeast Nebraska checking on the damage and the ongoing threat of storms Monday in parts of Northeast Nebraska.

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Editor's note: The World-Herald News Service contributed to this story.

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