PILGER, Neb. – A storm packing rare dual tornadoes tore through a tiny farming town in northeast Nebraska, killing a 5-year-old girl, leaving grain bins crumpled like discarded soda cans and flattening dozens of homes.
All the residents of the town of Pilger — some 350 people — evacuated their homes, many leaving for shelters in nearby towns, 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."
Emergency crews and residents spent the evening sifting through demolished homes and businesses in the town about 80 miles northwest of Omaha.
Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger estimated that 50 to 75 percent of Pilger was heavily damaged or destroyed in the storm. The local school is likely beyond repair, he said.
"It's total devastation," Unger said.
The storm was part of a larger system that started to track across the nation's midsection Monday afternoon. More stormy weather was forecast Tuesday in an area stretching from eastern Montana to New York. The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, said powerful winds, large hail and a few tornadoes are possibly, particularly in Iowa, Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
The Stanton County Sheriff's Office said a 5-year-old child was killed but did not identify the child further or provide details of the circumstances of the death. Stanton County Sheriff's deputy Josh Bennett said the child killed was a girl.
At least 19 people were taken to hospitals for treatment.
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 twisters, 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."
Authorities were expected to allow residents to return Tuesday morning to survey the damage and gather any immediate valuables. The Stanton County Sheriff's Office said law enforcement would escort residents back to their properties.
Jodi Richey, a spokeswoman for Faith Regional Health Services in nearby Norfolk, said 16 people were treated at that facility. Some were in critical condition but others were released after treatment.
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.
Then a 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 was established at Wisner-Pilger Jr.-Sr. High School in nearby Wisner. About a dozen residents had arrived at the makeshift shelter by 9:30 p.m. and school officials expected more to come later, said Wisner-Pilger Schools Superintendent Chad Boyer.
"I just have to use one word — devastation," Boyer said by phone from inside the school. "It's a tremendous loss all around the town."
Tornadoes also caused damage in Cuming and Wayne counties, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency said in a news release. National Weather Service meteorologists also tracked a reported tornado near the town of Burwell, in central Nebraska. Mayes said the service had not received reports of damage.