Many of the storm-weary 378 residents of Pilger, Neb., gathered in the small community’s park on Friday morning to receive updates and ask questions.
Just days earlier, the modest town had made national news as a pair of EF-4 tornadoes demolished its business district and left most of those gathered in the park homeless.
The bright morning sun promised an oppressively hot day—and likely more violent storms—as the Pilger sheriff addressed the crowd. They discussed many things that most people take for granted: electricity and water, mail and banking (both the post office and local bank branch are now rubble).
Then, as the meeting came to a close, the sheriff solemnly asked his community to bow their heads and join him in prayer and a time of silence.
The residents prayed for each other, for emergency management, and for the volunteers helping in the recovery. Soon, voices around the park began to say the Lord’s Prayer in unison.
“Our Father, Who art in heaven…”
It’s fitting that the Pilger residents’ meeting ended in prayer, because—in a very real way—that’s how their ordeal began. Huddled under staircases in basements across the town, people screamed out to God for deliverance as they heard the twister raging overhead.
Linda Hewitt, who shared her story and prayed with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplains who are ministering in the area, was one of those people.
She and her husband had just returned from a vacation to Yellowstone ten minutes earlier, and left their groceries in the van as they ran into the house. Along with their dog, they descended the stairs into the basement, and—for a moment—they thought the storm had passed to the east. However, one look to the west, and the tendrils spiraling down from nearby clouds, told them that something worse was coming.
Back under the steps in the basement, Linda and her husband cried out for safety. “We got on our knees, and we both prayed together that God would be there to help us,” she said.
“You’re just in a space by yourself,” Linda added, reflecting on the moment the deadly storm was directly over her head. “You don’t know what to think, what to do. You’re just praying to God, and that’s all you can think of—God.”
Though their house was shifted from its foundation and will need to be demolished, Linda considers herself blessed and is thankful. “We’re okay, and we have our possessions. I feel sorry for the people that don’t have anything left,” she said.
“I’m holding up pretty good, I’m surprised. We’ve had so many volunteers and people coming in with prayers and good thoughts and words. Maybe after everyone leaves it will hit us what happened.”
As Linda was hustling in from their trip to Yellowstone, on the south end of town Marilyn Andersen was sitting at the kitchen table with her husband and neighbor, eating popcorn and listening to a weather radio.
The radio interrupted their conversation with the words they didn’t want to hear. A tornado was on the ground and quickly heading towards Pilger.
“Expected time of arrival will be about five minutes after four,” said Marilyn, recalling the words that poured out of the speaker. “And it was on time.”
As the sirens went off, they moved downstairs. Marilyn’s husband watched the oncoming storm through a small window, and when he announced, “It’s going to hit us,” the three crouched into a small basement nook.
“It’s just, well, you can’t do anything,” said Marilyn, “It’s kind of a desperation. It’s like, okay, it’s gonna hit us. What can you do?”
She did the same thing her mom always did when a storm was bearing down. She prayed.
“Down in the basement I was praying and praying and praying and praying. My husband just wanted me to shut up, but I didn’t. And I know – I know! – that God was watching out for us. I just know He was.”
Miraculously, Marilyn’s house is still standing and intact. Her neighbor wasn’t as lucky. His home, garage and all of his possessions were gone. Two homes down, the storm picked up the house and everything in it.
“The tornado just came like a vacuum cleaner and vacuumed everything up into the air,” Marilyn explained. “They don’t have any clean up. They don’t have any walls. It’s just—whoosh—gone!”
Her three neighbors were all that remained on the slab. They were injured, but alive.
Adjacent to Marilyn’s yard is an open patch of ground where large semi-trucks and cranes are hauling load after load of debris, the mountain of splintered timbers and torn corrugated metal ever growing.
“I look over there and that’s the village of Pilger. That’s their lives, you know. I don’t know. It’s just devastating,” she said, as her eyes filled with tears.
If there’s hope for the community of Pilger—and there is—many realize that it needs to continue to come from above.
“I hope they pray for us that the people will find the energy and the reason to stay in this small town. We have a lot of people that are thinking about leaving,” said Linda Hewitt. “With the help of God, maybe we will have all these people stay, rebuild, and continue on with the small town living like we did before.”