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PILGER, Neb. – Residents of Pilger braced for a massive cleanup after a storm with dual tornadoes tore through their tiny northeast Nebraska town, killing a 5-year-old and damaging more than half of the community's structures.
Authorities evacuated Pilger overnight but were expected to let residents return Tuesday morning to survey the damage and gather any immediate valuables. The Stanton County Sheriff's Office said residents would gather at a staging area around 7:15 a.m., where law enforcement would then escort them into town.
The National Weather Service said the two twisters touched down within roughly a mile of each other. Emergency crews and residents spent the evening sifting through demolished homes and businesses in the community of about 350, roughly 100 miles northwest of Omaha. At least 19 people were injured.
"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."
Victims were taken to three regional hospitals, and at least one had died from unspecified injuries, hospital officials said. The Stanton County Sheriff's Office confirmed late Monday that the person killed was a 5-year-old child. It didn't specify the child's gender.
Officials won't know the intensity of the storms until late Tuesday at the earliest, after crews have examined the area, said Barbara Mayes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Valley.
Mayes said the dual tornadoes were unusual because both appeared to have roughly the same strength. In most cases, she said, one tornado tends to be larger and more powerful than the other, and the bigger cyclone grows stronger as the smaller one weakens.
"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."
Jodi Richey, a spokeswoman for Faith Regional Health Services in nearby Norfolk, said one person died and 16 others were being treated at the hospital. Hospital officials initially described those patients as being in critical condition but said later that some had been released after treatment.
Providence Medical Center in nearby Wayne treated three tornado patients, including two who had lacerations, said hospital spokeswoman Sandy Bartling. Two were released Monday evening, and the third patient was in stable condition, she said.
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.
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.
Pilger was evacuated for the night, and the Nebraska State Patrol closed all roads into town. Most residents made their own arrangements, but some were taken to a shelter 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 were expecting more to come later, said Wisner-Pilger Schools Superintendent Chad Boyer. The shelter will remain open to residents for as long as needed to offer food, water, showers and cots, he said.
"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. And meteorologists with the National Weather Service also tracked a reported tornado near the town of Burwell, in central Nebraska. Mayes said they had not received reports of damage.
Associated Press writer Grant Schulte contributed from Lincoln, Nebraska.