A powerful storm with tornadoes ripped through northeast Nebraska on Monday, destroying more than half of the tiny town of Pilger, killing a 5-year-old child and injuring at least 19 people, hospital and emergency officials said.
The National Weather Service said at least two twisters touched down within roughly 1.5 kilometres of each other. Emergency crews and residents spent the evening sorting through demolished homes and businesses in the town of about 350, roughly 160 kilometres northwest of Omaha.
"I have never seen twin tornadoes like this," CBC News meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe said of the twisters near the towns of Stanton and Pilger. She estimated winds would be faster than 300 km/h.
"From what I'm seeing on the radar, these two tornadoes actually merged later on, and it continues to skip, touching on and off the ground … as we move towards Iowa," she added.
"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.
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.
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.
One was transferred to a trauma center in Omaha, while others required surgery, said Dr. Doug Dilly, who was in the emergency room when patients arrived.
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 per cent 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. Four people were trapped inside.
While local crews removed them from the debris, 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, the sheriff's office said. Several people near Main Street in Pilger suffered critical injuries, including the child who later died.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard was preparing to deploy to assist local emergency responders and help with the cleanup. The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency was expected to arrive in town 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.
Tornadoes also caused damage in Cuming and Wayne counties, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency said in a news release.
"We are still in a response mode in these communities," said Earl Imler, NEMA's operations officer. "We are collecting damage reports from local officials on the ground."
CBC News Weather Centre's Ross Hull said the areas most affected by the storm system later in the evening will be southern Wisconsin and northern Iowa. The worst of the storm is likely over, however, with the tornado activity forecast to weaken overnight, Hull said.
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."
Meteorologists with the National Weather Service also tracked a tornado near the town of Burwell, in central Nebraska. Mayes said they had not received reports of damage.