From Hallam To Pilger: After The Tornado — Picking Up Pieces

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July 23rd, 2014

Lincoln, NE — On June 16, 2014, twin F-4 tornadoes with winds up to 260 miles per hour slammed into Pilger, Nebraska. In less than 15 minutes, every main street business in the town of 352 people was destroyed. Two people died in the storm, one of a series of tornadoes that ripped through northeast Nebraska that day. The next day, Gov. Dave Heineman visited the area to encourage the people of Pilger, and mentioned another Nebraska town.

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“There’s no doubt. This community has been hit the hardest of all communities. For those of you who might remember Hallam, going back 10 or 12 years ago, its exactly like that,” he said.

On May 22, 2004, an F-4 tornado hit Hallam in the midst of carving a 50-mile-long path of destruction through southeast Nebraska. It destroyed all but a handful of houses and killed one person in Hallam, a town of 276 people at the time. Then Gov. Mike Johanns seemed to take the storm almost personally.

One of the debris piles from Pilger. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

One of the debris piles from Pilger. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

“It looked like it just settled down on Hallam and just beat that community. And there just isn’t a lot left,” Johanns said.

Two days after the tornado struck, on Main Street in Hallam, Gordon Polak stood in the ruins of Brother’s Automotive, a garage he operated with his brother Joe. Gordon Polak said they wanted to rebuild.

“It just all depends on how things come out, if we can afford to rebuild and start again,” he said. “Hopefully our main goal is to rebuild right here. This town’s got to start over.”

And that’s what they did. Gordon Polak is retired now, in Florida. But brother Joe runs the new garage they built in the same spot on Main Street. Joe still sounds amazed at the outpouring of help from people after the tornado.

“I had a hard time dealing with people giving. I didn’t know how to accept that. It taught me a lot about humility,” Joe Polak said. He remembers things like getting a check for $500 from someone he’d done business with. “That’s pretty outstanding,” he said.

On the other hand, he cautioned, “You’ve got to be careful. There are a lot of vultures out there.” At the same time as some businesses were helping him out, Joe Polak said an equipment rental company charged him a full month’s rent for a bobcat he returned after two weeks, and dinged him for damages on top of that.

In Pilger a month after the tornado, there didn’t seem to be many complaints about “vultures.” The town is still in the cleanup phase, doing things like knocking down the old school building. As a huge excavator chomped away at the brick structure, Pilger Village Board Chairman Jim Duncan, 72, was actually laughing with some old friends.

“We were remembering stuff about the school,” Duncan explained, adding his friends had all attended the school when they were young, one of them graduating in the class of 1939.

“You throw back each other’s memories and we have fun,” he said. “Even if it’s a sad time you gotta have fun. You can’t dwell on the past.”

Pilger Village Board Chairman Jim Duncan. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Pilger Village Board Chairman Jim Duncan. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

In Pilger, like in Hallam, townspeople say they’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from volunteers.

“People are just great,” Duncan said. “The next day after this happened you couldn’t walk the streets – that was early in the morning. But then by noon you could walk every street in town.

“That first day, 1,800 people hit this little town and really busted their backs for us,” Duncan added.  Even so, after three weeks the town requested no volunteers for future Sundays.

“We just want to give people a break,” Duncan said. “Our people need breaks, too. We don’t want to hurt nobody’s feeling but everybody needs a break.”

Barb Wolverton’s house in Pilger was spared. But as she watched the school where she’s worked for the last six  years being torn down, she said a lot of her friends weren’t so lucky.

“Some of ‘em are in West Point, some of ‘em are in Wayne, some of ‘em are in Norfolk, some of them are staying with family,” Wolverton said. “I know one family that is living in a camper right now. Everybody’s just kind of dispersed all over.”

The Village Café and Bar Linda Oertwich owned and operated in downtown Pilger is gone. But her house escaped major damage. Oertwich said it can actually be tough dealing with people’s desire to help.

“I’ve had people actually give me cash. It’s like, I don’t need it. You know, I really don’t need it. I have my house, I have my insurance money from the bar. I’m going to be fine,” Oertwich said. “But then you feel like you’re putting them down, letting them down if you don’t take it. So I’ve decided I’m going to take it, and I’m going to go give it to somebody that needs it.”

A new house under construction in Hallam. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

A new house under construction in Hallam. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Despite feeling like she’s alright financially, Oertwich does say some residents are worried about how the town is now going to pay off street, sewer, and swimming pool bonds.

“Pilger’s paying three bonds back and now we’ve lost half the population. So is that extra tax burden gonna go on the people that still live here?” she asked.

Then there’s the question of basements. Because the town is close to the Elkhorn River, FEMA says new houses can’t have basements and still get flood insurance. Residents who saved their lives by huddling in their basements will have to consider building safe rooms above ground instead.

Before those decisions are reached, there are still mountains of debris to remove. Huge piles sit out by the highway on the edge of town. Village Clerk Kim Neiman says FEMA estimated the biggest pile of debris from the houses as being 45 feet tall, weighing 71,000 tons, and costing more than $2 million to remove.

“And that’s just that pile,” Neiman said, adding there are others as well.

By contrast, 10 years after the Hallam tornado, the town looks as if some developer decided to build a modern subdivision in the country. The houses are almost all new, and the population is back up to 216.

Joe Polak in his shop. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Joe Polak in his shop. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

One of the residents is Laura Edmonds, who lost her house down to the studs during the tornado. Just a year after the storm Edmonds was looking forward and celebrating all the new people in town. Edmonds was asked recently if another storm tore down her house again, would she and her husband Tim rebuild all over again?

“No,” Edmonds said simply. “We would just go find a little place on a mountain where Tim could fly fish and I could plant flowers,” she added, laughing.

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