For more than three decades, the sleepy farming village of Pilger, Nebraska, has gone by the scrappy motto, “The little town too tough to die.”
It was a slogan more tongue-in-cheek than rooted in hardship or catastrophe — until Monday, when a pair of tornadoes ripped through the community and threatened to wipe all of Pilger off the map.
Now, residents are forced to pick up the pieces in a real test of their “too tough” resolve.
“It’s total devastation,” Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger said in a Tuesday morning news conference, as he estimated 75 percent of Pilger — including all of its business district — was leveled.
Two people, including a 5-year-old girl, were killed in Monday’s storm. At least 19 people were hospitalized.
Pilger residents have been permitted to go back to their homes to salvage any belongings ahead of the National Guard taking over recovery operations Wednesday.
The devastation is not something residents of Pilger — population 378 — have been accustomed to, said Becky Frerichs, of the Historical Society of Stanton County, in spite of their gritty slogan.
While residents routinely brace for severe weather during tornado season, Frerichs said, the last time a twister came close to decimating Pilger was in the 1950s when a carnival was in town. The tornado didn’t actually touch down, but the scene was frightening enough to “upset” the ferris wheel, said Frerichs’ husband, Darryl, a Nebraska native.
“We don’t have carnivals anymore,” he added.
“If they hadn’t rushed everyone to the cooler, there would have been lives lost.”
During the village’s centennial celebrations in the 1980s, the “too tough” motto was born — and it stuck, the Frerichses said.
“I guess they just put it in the light of one of those Old West towns that has survived all of these years,” Darryl Frerichs added.
Residents remain familiar with the motto, but not many have given it much thought over the years.
“I don’t know how seriously they take it,” Becky Frerichs said. “It’s something we laugh about.”
The Frerichs, who live about a mile north of the village limits, were spared when the tornadoes veered from a path that would have decimated their home. They could see giant grain bins toppled in the distance and the farmers co-op building — the heart of the agricultural community — turned into a pile of twisted metal.
Pilger's single bank, its church, its school — all gone.
Agricultural salesman Bob Bals was at the co-op when the tornadoes touched down about a mile apart at 4 p.m. local time. He and about a dozen others were ushered into the facility’s walk-in beer cooler.
But, as they realized the strength of the storm, they went farther inside where the milk was stored, Bals said.
The winds howled, and they stayed quiet as they tried to ride out the storm. Part of the co-op collapsed, but the milk cooler was relatively intact, Bals said.
“The guys at the co-op took charge,” he said. “If they hadn’t rushed everyone to the cooler, there would have been lives lost.”
Trey Wisniewski heard the storm sirens, glanced out at the blackening sky and rushed with his wife into their basement.
“My wife was holding our animals, and I was holding on to my wife. We could feel the suction try to pull us out of there," he said Tuesday.
Suddenly, their house was gone, leaving them to dodge debris that rained down upon them.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman flew over Pilger in a helicopter Tuesday morning and then walked through the town, trailed by reporters.
“This is by far the worst thing I've ever seen as governor,” Heineman said.
“I am amazed that ... out of all of this destruction only two people were killed,” Wisniewski added.
While the governor said he was confident the community would rebuild, business owner Linda Oertwich wasn't so sure.
“Pilger's too small and the devastation in these homes will cost too much to rebuild,” said Oertwich, who will decide whether to rebuild her Village Bar and Cafe after hearing from her insurance company.
Others weren't counting out the town. If Monday has revealed anything about Pilger, locals say, it’s that people have shown a collective toughness that can't be dismissed.
“I saw a lot of heroes that day,” Bals added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.