Volunteers returned Thursday morning and will come back every day for the foreseeable future to help with cleanup in Pilger from the tornadoes that tore through northeast Nebraska on Monday, killing two people.
From the onset of the destruction, the pull was strong for volunteers to step up and help. "I didn't even know if there was gonna be any Pilger left since it's so small," said Johnny Reyes of Wayne. "I mean, two tornadoes going, that's kinda crazy.”
“It looked like there was a lot of damage and I heard on the radio they were looking for volunteers and I had the day off, so I thought I'd help out," said Greg Tracy of Wayne.
About 1,800 people showed up at Wisner-Pilger High School to lend a hand any way they could. That included bringing in all kinds of equipment, big and small, to help clear debris.
"It is quite a process and we have to keep that in mind, that it is a process," said Wisner-Pilger High School Superintendent Chad Boyer. "Things are gonna go slow for awhile. Cleanup is gonna go slow, but we just need to stay positive. And I tell ya what, when you have volunteers coming in like this it's easy to stay positive."
Coordinating volunteer efforts has been a tremendous undertaking, but as quick as people could sign-up and get loaded onto buses, they were sent in to work.
Arriving in flip-flops and boots in hand, Lincoln’s Katie Doht came to do her part. “There's so many other people helping, but I know that if I help I had something to do with this. Got cleaned up so fast, in record time and I want to be a part of that."
Inside the town, residents, volunteers and emergency crews remained focused on clearing debris, restoring power and continuing to make progress. Eleven-year-old Sarah Von Seggern and her family were in their home outside of Pilger when the tornado scored a direct hit. "We took cover under blankets and everything and then all you could hear is a two-by-two hitting the door and we all started crying because we knew it was all gone then."
It was gone in minutes. “It was hard,” Sarah said. “That was our stuff, family memories. I grew up in that house.”
Cars and trucks were tossed around like toys. A basement is all that's left of the home. “Long road ahead, long road ahead," said Eric Von Seggern. "My wife and I built here almost 20 years ago. I don't know how we'd have done down there so we just stayed in the house." The family took refuge in a safe room in the basement. That's about all that’s left of the house.
More than 60 volunteers descended on the family's home. The damage is so extensive it’s hard to tell anything has been done. The help that I had was astronomical with friends and family,” Eric said. “I just can’t thank them enough.” Eric said the family will rebuild and Sarah’s tears are already yielding to that promise. “Bigger and better,” she said with an eye to the future. “I'm talking about my room,” she said through laughter and a smile.
Derek Keuster's house was reduced to rubble. “This is just unreal."
Months of cleanup lie ahead for Pilger in the wake of just 14 minutes of stormy skies. In that time, approximately 80 percent of the town was destroyed.
Volunteers helped make the first dent in the task ahead, clearing broken pieces of scattered structures. The heat has been a challenge, but volunteers forged ahead combing through hundreds of homes and every building in town, including the battered bank where eight people took cover in the vault during the storm.
Down the road, the Farmers Co-Op was hit hard. It was Pilger’s main industrial building.
As far as donations, the big items needed now are bottled water, gloves and any construction items such as tarps and patching for buildings. The best place to bring those items is Wisner-Pilger High School.