On an overcast Sunday afternoon in February, the town is silent.
The roads of Pilger, Nebraska, are empty, cracked and covered in dirt from nearby construction projects.
Downtown, the street signs stand bent and crooked. From the corner of 2nd and Main streets, the town is entirely visible. There are the seven grain bins at the local Farmer’s Co-op, shiny and new, just a block away. The overgrown baseball field can be seen in the opposite direction in the northwest corner of town. There, a concessions building stands. A cardinal is drawn on the wall near the window, the mascot faded from what was once was a radiant red. A sign advertises food for a crowd that doesn’t show up: Iced tea – $1. Popcorn – .50 cents. Suckers – .05 cents.
After most of the trees were uprooted and felled almost two years ago, the 193-acre village is now visible from one end to the other. The 200 mph winds that blew through the center of town on June 16, 2014 destroyed more than 300 trees and flattened the landscape.
The tornado that came that day was categorized as an EF4 – a label reserved for tornadoes deemed “devastating.” In its wake, dozens of Pilger residents were injured and two left dead: a 74-year-old man and a 5-year-old girl.
The tornadoes also destroyed 73 homes, damaged approximately 50 and took out the entire business district.
Kimberly Neiman, 53, has lived in Pilger for a little more than 20 years and said the damage was akin to seeing her hometown being run over by a bulldozer.
“It was just devastation,” she said.
Before the tornado, the village – Pilger is too small to be considered a town – was home to 352 people. When it reopened a week later, only 160 remained.
Neiman, Pilger’s village clerk treasurer, said many families left to be closer to a school district. Widowed seniors left, too, not wanting to rebuild a home for just one.
While things have improved – the population is now up to 212 – residential growth is beginning to decline. Neiman said that even if Pilger were to return to its original population of 350, it would likely take years for it to do so.
The tornado wiped out about 75 percent of the village, which is still working to recover.
Main Street is filled with construction work. Signs with phrases such as “Future home of … ” and “Coming soon!” are scattered across the village, promising a better Pilger to come. Six construction projects are currently underway, including a new convenience store, the Midwest Bank and Saint John’s Lutheran Church, which is undergoing its second attempt at rebuilding after it was taken down by a windstorm in December of 2015. Now, the church sits across a lot that holds a large pile of lumber.
Even though there’s been ongoing development since the disaster, Neiman said residential construction has slowed down immensely.
Neiman has taken on many roles in the town. Along with acting as the village clerk, she’s also a volunteer firefighter and EMT.
These days, her office is in the temporary fire hall, a large metal warehouse that houses the trucks and other equipment until the new firehouse can be built.
Her cat, Panzer – named after the armored German tank – keeps her company most days, sleeping on an old sweatshirt by the window and basking in the light. Neiman calls her the village’s comfort kitty.
Panzer is a survivor of the tornado, as well. She spent three hours underneath a destroyed office until she was found. Neiman assumed she had died, but the cat proved to be about as resilient as the tank she’s named after.
Neiman was sent out with an ambulance to rural Stanton on June 16 after a tornado was spotted, the first of four that would touch down in northeastern Nebraska that day. While out on the road, she saw a second tornado descend on Pilger. By the time the ambulance pulled into her town, Neiman knew her house was gone.
“You could see just debris and devastation, and you could hear people yelling and screaming,” she said, smoothing the pinpricks of goosebumps on her arms.
Almost immediately upon return, Neiman took on a leadership role, one she continues. She helped create a search-and-rescue plan with first responders and returned to the front of the office to start directing others. She then received permission from the mayor to declare disaster to start getting state aid.
As village clerk, Neiman ensures all rules and regulations are followed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
“My responsibility is to the village and to make sure that we get anything and everything we can get, and get everything fixed back to the way it was,” she said.
Clean-up has come with a price tag. Just clearing the debris from the town cost almost $1 million. Neiman said total village costs for repairs will total about $4 million. FEMA declared 13 projects in the village and will pay for 75 percent of the costs, but Pilger will still have to cover the remaining 25 percent.
“The village will have debt by the end because of it,” Neiman said.
She estimated the total amount of debt for the village by the end of construction to be around $5 million.
One blow to the residential rebuilding process came from floodplain regulations. A majority of Pilger’s 60- to 70-year-old homes were built in the floodplain, which covers three-fourths of the town. While today’s floodplain regulations state that homes must be a foot above base flood elevation, those restrictions weren’t in place when many of the homes were built. Because of these regulations, the new homes built on floodplains can’t have basements. For those living in tornado alley – especially for a community that lost two of its own – this comes as a worry.
Paul Unruh, a project coordinator from the nonprofit organization Mennonite Disaster Services, oversaw the construction of five homes and minor rehabilitation on around a dozen more in Pilger.
All homes built by Mennonite Disaster Service have either two or three bedrooms and are what Unruh calls “simple housing.” But each comes prepared for the worst – all were built with hurricane strapping and a storm shelter on the property.
“We view it as bordering on unethical to build a home without a storm shelter after tornadoes hit,” Unruh said.
Volunteers began rebuilding in February 2015, with the volunteer team braving weather that was as cold as 10 below zero with 25 mph winds, Unruh said. The disaster services fields a total of 4,000 volunteers every year, and a rotating group of 10 to 25 would work in Pilger every week during the construction.
Unruh said the organization-built homes provided housing to those who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford it. After the families go through an extensive application process with a long-term recovery committee – mostly comprised of locals – they are given the home at no cost.
But Unruh said the service doesn’t view it as charity, “because nobody likes to receive charity.”
Even with restored homes, Gene Willers, the senior credit advisor for the Pilger Midwest Bank, said he hasn’t seen a lot of growth lately.
It was hard to imagine regrowth after seeing the town back in June, he said. Willers was in the basement of the bank at the time of the tornado and helped lock other employees and customers in the vault for protection. By the time he climbed out of the bank, the building was a pile of rubble.
“The town looked like World War III,” he said.
Today, Willers is the chairman of the effort to create a Pilger Community Center and chair of the Pilger Reinvention Committee, a steering committee of several groups in the village.
“We didn’t want to say ‘redevelopment’ or anything like that because we felt like we have a chance to kind of redefine the community,” Willers said.
Before the tornado hit, Willers said the village had been in a slow decline, with many residents living in “below standard housing.” While the tornado brought tragedy, it did allow a chance for the village to recreate itself, he said.
The village has set up three main phases of the recovery process. Stage one was the repairing and rebuilding of homes. Stage two has been fixing the businesses along Main Street and stage three will be attracting people to the town and boosting the population.
Willers said the village’s current focus is on stage two and the revitalization of downtown, the area that took the hardest blow.
The Farmer’s Co-op, one of the biggest employers in the area, was one of the first businesses to return. It rebuilt seven bins in November 2014, finished in time to take in that fall’s grain.
Willers is overseeing the development of a community center, which would have a meeting space, wellness center, senior center and a large area open for events such as weddings and reunions. All in all, the 8,800-square-foot space should be able to hold 200 to 250 people, the entire population of Pilger.
Construction on the space started last month, and Willers hopes to have it open in the fall.
“We hope that’s going to help grow our new residents,” Willers said. “We want to have a nice community that provides all the basic services.”
One way to increase Pilger’s population, said Willers, is to draw in young families. The village is working on plans for a day care center to do just that, but Pilger’s lack of schools makes drawing in young families harder.
The Wisner-Pilger Middle School, which employed about 10 educators and acted as an activity center for the town, was destroyed in the tornado. Since then, the middle school has joined with the school in the neighboring town of Wisner. Willers doesn’t expect another school in Pilger in the near future, if ever.
“That’s just not the way it’s going in rural Nebraska,” he said. “Towns are losing their schools left and right. It’s hard. There’s just not a lot of population out in the country.”
But Willers stays hopeful. The town was not going in the right direction before, he said. The tornado has given the town a chance to reimagine what it can be.
That includes a bigger population, something that may be possible with a new four-lane highway.
If enacted, the Transportation Innovation Act, an effort to update the state’s infrastructure, would provide funding for a four-lane highway from Norfolk to Fremont. Pilger sits right in its proposed path.
Willers hopes the highway will draw a crowd of potential new residents to Pilger, specifically families looking for a small community.
Angela Denton, the owner of Go-Joe Trucking in Pilger, said she is amazed at how far the village has come in such a short amount of time. Born and raised on a farm just two miles north of Pilger, she is now raising her children just south of the village.
She wears a black work jacket, mud splattered on the sleeves from picking up scrap wood from the Go-Joe Trucking lot. The company’s lot is new and improved, built after the tornado wiped clean the original truck lot. The company was one of the lucky ones; Neiman said it had planned on constructing a new building before the tornado and hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
While the tornado missed Denton’s house, their business lost some tools and parts that were on the lot. But she said one of the worst parts of the aftermath was walking through her destroyed hometown.
“My home church was completely wiped and gone, (the) whole Main Street where all my first jobs were,” she said, trailing off.
All of those memories, she said.
But Denton said they’re overcoming the disaster by building a new town.
“We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time,” she said. “You just can’t help but believe that we’re going to be better than what we were.”
As a member of the long-term recovery team, she said it’s amazing to see how far Pilger has come in such a short amount of time.
But even with so many improvements, the shrinking population is evident.
“It’s hard to see it decrease,” Denton said. “But when your ties are strong to the community that we are, it’s hard to leave.”
There’s a flagpole that sits by the Pilger library. It’s dedicated to the strength of the Pilger community amid disaster and notes the date that the two tornadoes hit. Below that is the village’s slogan: “The town too tough to die.”
Neiman said that the villagers take things day-by-day.
“It’s been a struggle,” she said, but “we’ll get back … slowly but surely.”