Direct hit by ‘swarm’ of tornadoes obliterates small Nebraska town

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 5:28pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 5:54pm

A swarm of tornadoes, some appearing two at a time, struck several farming communities in northeastern Nebraska on Monday, killing at least one person and injuring 16 others in one tiny town obliterated by a direct hit, officials said.

The tornadoes, part of a super-cell thunderstorm system, appeared to be class EF-2 or EF-3 twisters, meaning they packed cyclonic winds of up to 265km/h, said Rich Thompson, the lead forecaster for the National Storm Prediction Centre in Norman, Oklahoma.

The village of Pilger, a community several blocks wide and home to roughly 350 residents, appeared to bear the brunt of the storms and the heaviest concentration of casualties after one twister struck in late afternoon, local authorities said.

“Pilger is gone,” said Sanford Goshorn, director of emergency management for Stanton County. “The tornado cut right through the centre of town.” Electricity, water and sewage services were completely knocked out, he said.

The entire community, located about 100 miles northwest of Omaha, was ordered to be evacuated.

The Pilger storm killed one person and injured at least 16 who were taken to a hospital in nearby Norfolk, Nebraska, Stanton County Sheriff Michael Unger told Reuters.

Thompson said the Storm Prediction Centre tracked at least four different twisters in northeastern Nebraska, with one or two sightings of a pair of tornadoes touching down simultaneously.

“Two powerful tornadoes on the ground at the same time is quite rare,” said Barbara Mayes, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Omaha.

A storm chaser video on the Weather Channel showed two large tornadoes in the same video frame tearing across farmland near Stanton.

Additional tornadoes or funnel clouds were detected in central Nebraska, behind the first wave of storms that appeared to dissipate as it moved eastward, weather officials said.

The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency received reports of injuries and damage throughout Stanton, Cuming and Wayne counties, spokeswoman Jodie Fawl said.

“We have had reports of people trapped in several of the communities,” she said, adding that roads were closed to all but emergency vehicles near Pilger.

Most of the homes and other buildings that once stood in an area approximately six blocks wide by six blocks long were levelled in Pilger, with debris strewn across roadways and into a field east of town. Crushed vehicles littered the landscape.

Brian Reeg, from the neighbouring town of Winside, stood bewildered in a lot where nothing remained of his church but a pile of rubble.

“I just came to see if I could help,” he said, surveying the wreckage. “This is where I was baptized, where I was married and went to church my whole life.”

Besides 16 patients from Pilger who were taken to a hospital in Norfolk, the Providence Medical Center in Wayne reported receiving three patients from the Pilger storm.

The Omaha World Herald reported nine other patients from the storms were treated at three other area hospitals.