PILGER, Neb. (AP) — At least one person was killed and 16 others were in critical condition on Monday after massive tornadoes swept through northeast Nebraska, destroying more than half of the town of Pilger, hospital and emergency officials said.
The National Weather Service said at least two twisters touched down within roughly a mile of each other. Emergency crews and residents spent the evening sorting through demolished homes and businesses in the town of about 350, roughly 100 miles northwest of Omaha.
"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.
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.
Unger said five people had to be rescued from a rural home day care northwest of Stanton. That home was hit just before the storm moved into Pilger.
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. 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. Certainly, our thoughts and prayers are with the community.
He said Wisner-Pilger Middle School, located in Pilsner, was heavily damaged by the tornado, but he hadn't seen it up close.
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."
Faith Regional Health Services in nearby Norfolk was treating 16 patients with critical injuries, and one person had died, said hospital spokeswoman Jodi Richey.
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.
Meteorologists with the National Weather Service were also tracking a tornado near the town of Burwell, in central Nebraska.
Associated Press writer Grant Schulte contributed from Lincoln.