PILGER — Twin twisters enveloped much of this community Monday afternoon. On Wednesday morning, volunteers began to do the same.
Their goal? Simply to be of help where needed after so much devastation was caused by the tornadoes earlier in the week.
Volunteers and residents were in recovery mode Wednesday as hundreds of volunteers descended on the community.
It was easy to see the mixture of emotions residents felt as they moved into recovery mode while still reflecting on the damage caused and the history of the town, too.
While appreciative of the help being provided, many are still coming to grips with the loss. Some of them couldn’t help but relive the horrifying experience of the two tornadoes that ripped through the town of nearly 400 people.
Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger said there’s a lot of history within Pilger, but right now, it’s “ultimate mass destruction.”
“The school is devastated. St. John’s Lutheran Church is gone and the Co-op was leveled,” Unger said.
The Farmers Co-operative, which lines an entire street, was off limits to cleanup crews on Wednesday, but elsewhere, the volunteers were being put to good use.
It was apparent while walking through Pilger on Wednesday morning that the streets looked significantly better than just a day earlier. Crews were making a big dent in cleanup efforts.
Raymond Nance, a state fire marshal, said there will be a stress factor for emergency personnel in the coming days as they try to take care of their own families and others at the same time.
Nineteen-year-old Marriana Wilson of Wisner — who is part of the Nebraska National Guard — said she enjoys the opportunity to help people.
“It hurts my heart to see people get their houses damaged,” Wilson said. “I want to help the people clean their homes up. I don’t know the people, but I come from family where helping family always matters.”
Steven Holderman was using a chainsaw Wednesday morning to cut up what remained of trees on Stanton Street in Pilger.
Holderman was part of a contingent of volunteers from Cedar Hills Church in Scotia. A total of 16 volunteers came from that church group, which has a history of helping communities following disasters.
“I’m glad it’s not me,” Holderman said. “It’s easier to help them than experience it than my own house.”
The Cedar Hills Church brought two skid steers, two dump trailers, a semi, a payloader and chainsaws to help with the clean-up effort.
Sandy Foote, a 24-year-old Pilger resident, was in the basement when the storm hit. Her husband, three dogs and a cat were safe.
Foote, who also lives on Stanton Street, recalled the moments before it hit Pilger.
“I could see the tornado coming right over the senior center,” she said. “It was silent — no noise.”
The Footes did lose trees in their front yard and windows on their home.
“I thank God these people are here,” Foote said. “They have been busting their butts and we are so fortunate to have them.”
The clean-up efforts began at 6 a.m. with people starting to file into Wisner-Pilger High School in Wisner to check in and be transported to Pilger.
Becky Neuhalfen, a member of the Pilger Volunteer Fire Department, spearheaded the operation. Neuhalfen said she was expecting 600 to 800 volunteers for the day.
“We’ve been getting calls from numerous fire departments from all different states,” Neuhalfen said.
At the beginning of the day, multiple organizations — as varied as the American Red Cross, Arlington Fire & Rescue, Christian Response Services of Missouri and the Salvation Army — came to help, along with volunteers from surrounding communities.
“The goal for today is to get the streets clean,” Neuhalfen said. “It’s a mess.”
Buses began transporting the volunteers about 7:30 a.m. and were to continue cycling between the school in Wisner and Pilger throughout the day.
Residents were already at their houses in Pilger when volunteers arrived Wednesday.
Pilger was still without electricity Wednesday morning, but the village’s water system began functioning as of Tuesday night.
Neuhalfen said the most important thing for crews was to stay hydrated and safe.
“Safety first,” she said. “We don’t need anybody getting hurt.”
Water and food were provided to the volunteers at command central on the northwest side of Pilger. Three EMS teams were also available at command to help in the hot and humid conditions.
Gov. Dave Heineman ordered 20 Nebraska National Guardsmen to state active duty in the wake of the storm.
The guardsmen, who are primarily from 189th Transportation Company based in Wayne and Norfolk, and five vehicles have been mobilized to support the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency as the agency works with local and county incident commanders and emergency management officials to determine the areas of greatest need.