Many rebuilding challenges ahead for Nebraska town

Associated Press
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A worker pauses for a break from cleaning up debris in Pilger, Neb., Wednesday, June 18, 2014. Wednesday was the first day volunteers were allowed into town to help with cleanup following Monday's storm, according to the Norfolk Daily News. The storm spawned at least four tornadoes, and killed two people in the Pilger area. (AP Photo/The Norfolk Daily News, Darin Epperly, Pool)

PILGER, Neb. (AP) — Soon the roughly 350 residents of this farming town in northeastern Nebraska will face a momentous decision that people in other U.S. towns devastated by tornadoes have agonized over: stay and rebuild, or leave.

Pilger's slogan — "The little town too tough to die" — has never faced this direct a threat. More than three-quarters of Pilger was damaged or destroyed by Monday's tornadoes, which also killed two people and injured at least 19. The storm didn't just damage homes, but also the downtown, middle school and the Pilger Co-op, the town's biggest employer.

The post-storm recovery struggles faced by places such as Greensburg, Kansas; Spencer, South Dakota; Hallam, Nebraska; and Thurman, Iowa; show it won't be easy.

Pilger Board Chairman Jim Duncan sounded upbeat about his town's future despite all the damage. After retrieving a couple pairs of jeans from the wreckage of his home, Duncan even joked that people who thought the town needed a new middle school would likely get their wish.

"You just pick up the pieces and move forward," said Duncan, who had bandages affixed to his forehead and temple for a bump and small cut.

Most Pilger residents will have to wait to learn how much insurance coverage they have before deciding whether to move. Business owner Linda Oertwich said Tuesday after viewing the extensive damage that she wasn't sure the town would recover.

People are much more likely to rebuild if they live in a close-knit community and have ties to the area, said Laszlo Kulcsar, director of the Kansas Population Center at Kansas State University.

"Communities have been destroyed by tornadoes before. Most of them just rebuild," said Kulcsar, who studied Greensburg's decision to reinvent itself with green technology when it rebuilt after a 2007 tornado wiped out most of the rural community.

Greensburg lost roughly half of its population as it was being reborn as an environmentally friendly town. Even without drastic changes, towns risk losing residents while rebuilding, especially professionals whose jobs could be done elsewhere.

As in most small rural communities, Pilger's population was already declining, falling from a high of 578 in 1930 to 352 in the most-recent Census. And Pilger residents have the option of moving to the larger communities of Norfolk or Wayne less than half an hour away.

In 1998, a tornado killed 6 people and leveled most of the buildings in Spencer, South Dakota. Despite efforts to rebuild and attract residents, the town's population fell from about 370 to fewer than 170.

Spencer has a bank, coffee shop, beauty shop, day care, library and Post Office. But many other businesses and three of its four churches weren't rebuilt.

"We haven't had any houses for probably two years now," Donna Ruden, town board president, said Wednesday. "It's slow. You always want what your town had before the tornado, but that's not going to happen."

An April 2012 tornado damaged 95 percent of the southwest Iowa town of Thurman, but didn't cause serious injuries.

More than two years later, Mayor Rod Umphreys said the town is bouncing back.

"The biggest thing was that sense of community, and people wanted to stay," Umphreys said of the recovery effort. "They weren't going to let (the tornado) shake their spirits. It's where they lived, it's where they came from, and that was what was important to them, so they rebuilt."

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman predicted Pilger would rebound, just as other Nebraska towns have, such as Hallam, the southeast Nebraska town that was nearly obliterated by a tornado in 2004 and saw its population drop from 276 to 213 after rebuilding.

"?We rebuilt Hallam. We're going to rebuild Pilger," Heineman said. "I know we are going to get that done."

Rebuilding the town's grain elevator will be key. Officials with the co-op, which is owned by area farmers, were busy trying to recover what they could from the facility Wednesday, so they weren't available to discuss the future.

Pilger won't be facing all of its trials alone, however. Officials said 1,800 volunteers helped out Wednesday, and the city of Beaver Crossing, which was hit by a tornado on Mother's Day, sent its city clerk to aid Pilger officials.


Associated Press reporters Carson Walker contributed to this report from Sioux Falls, South Dakota., and Barbara Rodriguez contributed from Des Moines, Iowa.