NET News’ Ryan Robertson covered the June 16th tornado that destroyed most the town of Pilger, Nebraska. Fred Knapp covered the tornado that destroyed Hallam in 2004. Together, they have produced an NET News special report “From Hallam to Pilger: After the Tornado.” This story, "Putting Things Together,” looks at how residents from both communities are moving on after the storms' destruction.
The physical disruption caused by tornadoes like the ones that hit Hallam and Pilger is dramatic. But the emotional toll can be more subtle.
On a recent morning about three and a half weeks after the tornado, Barb Wolverton was among a small crowd gathered to watch the demolition of the heavily-damaged Pilger school.
“There’s some days that you get through and it’s like well, I got through and I didn’t cry today,” Wolverton said. “And then there’s other days where …you can’t do anything,” she added, pausing to make it through the sentence, voice quavering. “That’s hard, because I feel like I shouldn’t feel that way because I have a house."
Wolverton is talking about survivor’s guilt. While she’s grateful for what she’s got, she’s thinking about those who lost their houses.
“We have electricity, we have water. It just needs some facial fixing just shingles and siding,” Wolverton said of her house. “So we’re planning on staying. And we’re really, really hoping people will come back and build, and rebuild. We’re really hoping they will. We need ‘em.”
If Pilger’s experience is like Hallam’s, some – but not all – of the residents will return. When the tornado hit Hallam 10 years ago, 276 people lived in town. Nearly every house was destroyed. Laura Edmonds lost her house down to the studs. But one year later, she was looking on the bright side.
At the time, she talked to NET News about “all the homes that are back in place, all the families that are here, the new people that have recently purchased and moved into town that weren’t here before. They like the idea that it’s a new community, if you will, and they like the spirit of the people here.”
This is what downtown Hallam looked like after the 2004 tornado. NET News Statewide covered what happened next in a special report.
“This year has been about survival. And if we...get to May 22, which we will, then maybe we can start living again. Yes, we’re functioning and doing all the things we need to do. But to really start living and to just sit down and enjoy life again,” Edmonds said.
Enjoying life is kind of what Pilger Days, a community celebration that was held last weekend despite the destruction, is all about. It’s a tradition that goes back more than 50 years. Jim Duncan, Pilger’s village board chairman, recounts how in 1962, some “young kids” got “a little barley pop or liquid spirits in ‘em.” They went out to the Pilger sign on the outskirts of town and added “The little town too tough to die.”
“It just stayed,” Duncan recalled, and led to a community celebration. “We had pit barbeques and by the time you got the wood cut and the wood burned and the beer drank it was a whole month’s celebration really. And then we started having Pilger Days from then on,” he said.
Last weekend, just over one month after the tornado, Pilger hosted its annual event again. The Volunteer Fire Department served around 850 people at their barbeque and raised close to $10,000. Even though exact amounts are unknown, Pilger's Village Clerk Kim Neiman says "a lot" of barley pop was consumed.
While Pilger Days helped people uphold a tradition, some folks are looking at new uses for what the storm tore apart. Linda Oertwich’s house toward the far south end of town survived. But the Village Café and Bar she owned and operated in an old brick building downtown was knocked down. Oertwich’s decided not to rebuild.
“Actually, when they demolished the bar, I went up and I saved a couple of pallets of bricks because I’m going to build a firepit in my backyard. Just for – to get together,” Oertwich explained.
Bricks from the Pilger School were also made available to people wanting to hold onto a piece of the town’s history. And just off Main Street, townspeople arranged bricks from demolished buildings into a mosaic of concentric circles, resembling a sunburst.
Throughout all the trauma, to an outsider it seems remarkable how matter-of-fact the people of Hallam and Pilger now have been about moving forward. As Pilger Village Board Chairman Duncan put it, “It’s one day at a time and you can only do so much in a day. It’ll work."