Rep. Jeff Fortenberry
When I heard about the twin tornadoes that ravaged the town of Pilger and the surrounding countryside, I did what many others did all across Nebraska and picked up the phone. I called my friend J.D. Alexander, a cattleman who owns a feedlot right near Pilger. I could not have guessed that just a little while earlier he had emerged from his basement to find his house gone.
The next morning I accompanied Governor Heineman on a Nebraska National Guard helicopter to assess the damage. As we neared Pilger, we began to see the origins of the tornados and determine the pathway of the storm. Trees along the Elkhorn River were snapped in half like matchsticks. At one point a brown swath of churned earth appeared in a field and stretched like a scar into Pilger. It cut diagonally straight through the town.
After landing, we began to survey the damage. Pilger resembled an urban warzone from the Middle East. Piles of rubble covered smashed cars amid the general wreckage. Dust was blowing in the wind. The town hall’s roof was gone. The trees looked like sadder versions of those in pictures drawn by small children; their sticklike trunks were stripped of branches and shorn of every leaf. Most houses had been reduced to crumbled shells. One wall of an old apartment building was
ripped away, and you could peer inside like it was a doll house. I stood beside a reporter from the Omaha World-Herald and stared at the mutilated structure. On one floor, behind a desk, was a chrome chair that looked like it was from the 1950s. The furniture, still in perfect order, was no more than a foot away from the edge that had once been the wall.
The middle school, the grain co-op, the bank, and most businesses -- these pillars of Pilger had been torn apart. The shattered co-op was nothing more than collapsed bins and far-flung grain. At the demolished bank, one lady spoke of the tornado’s horrific sound, which had spurred everyone to retreat into the vault. She recalled huddling with the others and saying, “Let’s pray and we’ll make it.”
The greatest toll on the community was not material devastation. Brick and mortar, steel and wood—those can be repaired. But the tornadoes claimed a human cost that will remain long after everything else has been rebuilt. The storm caused sixteen serious injuries and took two lives. The first responder who had arrived on the scene told me how he found a little girl amid the wreckage—Calista Dixon, five years old, alive but fatally wounded. He reached for her hand, and she squeezed his fingers. But she didn’t survive.
The Red Cross was already on the scene when the Governor and I arrived. The sheriff, state police, and emergency personnel were doing their best to create conditions of order, letting people whose homes had been destroyed back into the area and managing the media. Some of the residents were out and about, clearly shaken, a bit bewildered, but all of them intent on rebuilding.
In the midst of tragedy, moments of good cheer and humor rose up from the ruins. The one building that remained functional was a bar. The woman who owned it simply said, “We’ll be open tomorrow.” One of the first people we met was Jim Duncan, the village board chairman, an older man with a great deal of spunk. His glasses sat crooked on his face, one lens missing; there was a bandage above his eyes. He told me how he had been sheltering in his basement when next thing he knew he was staring up at the sky through a canopy of splintered lumber. I had a good laugh when Jim asked me, “...my taxes going down now?”
After we finished our visit to Pilger, we traveled to J.D.’s feedlot. J.D. was glad to see us, but he was even more grateful for the twenty or so neighbors who had already arrived to help him clean up his property. Although the tornadoes had largely spared his lot and his cattle, his farmstead had sustained significant damage. Tumbledown walls marked the space where his home had stood. But in a small miracle, J.D. and his wife found their wedding rings in the yard—along with a $100 bill. Their son took one look and said, “Now we have something to rebuild with.”
Hope shone through the devastation in small gestures and shared burdens. Nature’s wrath had revealed the resilience of the human spirit and the commitment to community life in Nebraska. Pilger had joined together in a time of crisis, proving itself stronger than even the tornadoes. People were determined just to get back to work. A sign that hung outside the town said it all: “Too tough to die.”
Congressman Jeff Fortenberry represents eastern Nebraska in the U.S. House of Representatives.