Remembering the Pilger Tornadoes (Part 1)

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June 16th of this year marks the 8th anniversary of Pilger, Nebraska, tornado. Or more so, the Pilger tornadoes as twin tornados ripped through the Pilger area at essentially the same time that fateful day. This village of over 300 residents was forever changed that fateful day in June 2014.

History of Pilger

Pilger sits about 20 miles east of Norfolk, Nebraska. This village was originally platted in 1880 when the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad pushed its way through Stanton County. The town grew over the years until it topped out at 578 in 1930.

But as with many communities like it, the town was affected by the rise of the automobile and the trucking industry. Railroads fell out of favor and by 1982 the tracks were abandoned. The slow, steady decline of Pilger’s population continued, down to 352 residents in 2010.

Pilger is still a local farm town with a population that loves the community and the affordable small-town life.

The Tornado Outbreak

Severe spring storms are commonplace throughout the upper Midwest. The occasional tornado sometimes puts a scare in the hearts of residents as it tears through cornfields. But once in a while, there is an outbreak that affects much of the Midwest. From June 16th to the 18th in 2014 there was an outbreak of 109 tornados throughout the Midwest. In total that month, 287 tornados struck the United States.

The 16th was especially busy for Stanton County. An EF-0 tornado sprouted up briefly west of Stanton at 3:41 pm. At 3:55 another tornado sprouted up north of Stanton. Although it missed Pilger, this EF-4 twister destroyed farms, homes, vehicles and crops in the half-hour it was on the ground.

A third tornado sprouted up at 4:02 pm. As it approached the town, firefighters on their way south to respond to damage related to the second tornado noticed that the tornado sirens had failed to turn on. They raced back north to turn them on manually before taking the fire truck out of town to have it available in case this latest tornado hit the community.

Unfortunately, that EF-4 tornado ripped through town. In less than a minute and a half, this tornado killed one person, injured 20 others, and damaged or destroyed nearly 75% of the town’s structures.

At 4:13 pm, as the third tornado was approaching the town, another EF-4 tornado spun up to the immediate south and east of Pilger. This tornado killed another individual and over 300 head of cattle as it damaged or destroyed everything in its path.

A fifth tornado formed at 4:39 pm, another EF-4. While it caused damage, its track ran well north of town. Although the community was spared from this twister, the damage had already been done.


Pilger was devastated. On top of the loss of life and the injuries, the community lay in shambles. The twin tornados impacted three-quarters of the structures in town. One of the town’s churches and Pilger Middle School were destroyed. As the destroyed structures, uprooted trees, and piles of debris were removed, it unveiled a barren, desolate landscape.

However, the residents pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Unincorporating the community was never really an option. Midwest Bank quickly decided to rebuild, keeping the headquarters to the eight-bank chain in town. The local Co-Op and the fire department soon followed with their own declarations to rebuild.

Utilizing Non-Profit Organizations for Help

Although some of the businesses and residents were already preparing to rebuild, the town still needed help. Local leaders reached out to the Heartland Center and Rural Futures Institute (RFI) for any assistance they could provide in their efforts to save the town.

The Heartland Center is a nonprofit corporation out of Lincoln, Nebraska that has been helping rural communities for over 30 years. They’re most known for their “20 Clues to Rural Community Survival,” a list of characteristics found commonly in thriving small towns. The Heartland Center’s reach has expanded over the years, their training assists an estimated 2,500 leaders annually in up to 300 small towns throughout the United States and Canada.

Rural Futures Institute (RFI) (Now Rural Prosperity Nebraska – @ruralnebraska) was created by the University of Nebraska to help rural communities develop and implement strategies that will help to grow or maintain their communities. RFI’s impact has already spread well past Nebraska and into numerous communities. One of which has already been the subject of a post on Rural Resurrection. RFI helped the community of Brownville after the floods of 2019 with their Serviceship program.

Together, Heartland Center and RFI worked with community representatives on a number of initiatives that provided direction for their final report. These included (according to Heartland Center):

  • Catalyzing leadership from Pilger and surrounding communities (human/social),
  • Connecting the community with a variety of regional, state and federal resources (human/social/financial),
  • Engaging high school youth in activities envisioning the community as they’d like to see it in the future (social/human),
  • Bringing together residents and resource agencies to focus on key priorities for the community’s redevelopment (human/social), and
  • Helping provide hope for people whose lives and, in some cases livelihoods, were severely interrupted by a natural disaster (human/social/cultural, financial).
tornado damage to homes in Pilger, Nebraska, NWS

Tornado damage in Pilger, Nebraska, NWS

Rebuilding and Improving

The intent to rebuild wasn’t just a fleeting emotional reaction. The Co-Op was the first to break ground. Midwest Bank completed its new facility in June of 2016. “Pilger Pride”, a local convenience store, opened its doors in 2016 as well.

Since the tornado event, approximately 70 houses have been razed. Though locals will argue that a number of these were highly deteriorated, or even dilapidated in condition. Only a portion of these have been replaced with new construction. But replacing a town’s housing stock is not a short-term effort.

Pilger has also since constructed an 8,800-square-foot community center as well. The facility houses conference facilities, a fitness center, a commercial-grade kitchen, and a senior center. The community also sees it as a good venue to provide educational benefits for a variety of programming from preschool and early childhood, to adult education and entrepreneurial activities. As another feather in Pilger’s cap, the project was completed after a successful capital campaign to raise $2.5 million for construction, but for an operating endowment as well.


Ask Around for Help

Pilger received help from non-profit organizations in part because they asked around. Some of the help after a community-changing event like the Pilger tornadoes comes unsolicited. But sometimes you have to reach out to find out who can help in times of need. Community leaders in Pilger were not timid about reaching out for help.

If an organization cannot help, they typically can give you a lead to someone who can. When disaster strikes, there are few that will turn their back on you entirely. There are even some that will go out of their way to help you as celebrity Bret Michaels did in June 2014.

Ongoing Battle

Rebuilding from a devastating tornado is a never-ending story. Although the town’s population had rebounded, it still isn’t up to the level it was before that fateful spring. But adversity tends to bring out the true leaders in a community. It certainly did for Pilger.

A look back on the Pilger tornado event continues next week. Next week Rural Resurrection will take a look at Pilger’s efforts to look past the tornadoes and into their future. We’ll take a look at Pilger’s use of the APA CPAT program.