If Pilger is rebuilding, why aren't some residents?

Nov. 26, 2014, 6:30 a.m. ·

Both the Farmer's Co-Op and Pilger's bank are moving forward with plans to rebuild. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

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It’s been five months since two tornadoes destroyed most of the village of Pilger in northeastern Nebraska. About half of the people who lived there lost their homes, but the remaining residents are seeing new signs of life.

On a cold fall day in Pilger, volunteers from Black Hills Energy learned how to plant a tree. Too deep or too shallow, and the tree won’t take; too rough with the roots, and the tree will be weak.

The volunteers planted 46 donated trees. Five months ago, in June, twin tornadoes wiped out 300 of Pilger’s trees, along with most of the village.

Homeowners could pick from several different types of trees to be planted. Kim Neiman, the village clerk, said it’s nice to see so many people still willing to help.

Neiman said seeing the new trees go in the ground is a small but meaningful step towards getting things back to normal.

Members of the Arbor Day Foundation were on hand to teach volunteers from Black Hills Energy proper planting techniques. About 20 volunteers from Black Hills participated. Village Clerk Kim Neiman said she's thankful for the trees, because it's nice to have something pleasant to look at when she steps outside. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Pilger Village Clerk Kim Neiman and her 18-pound office mate, Panzer, had to move offices when the tornadoes destroyed their old location. To learn how Panzer survived the tornadoes, click here. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Neiman said it’s been a rough few months, and she’s had some people ask her if it’s even worth rebuilding Pilger.

“Yup, I’ve heard that. The first thing that had to happen for us to rebuild was for the Co-op to come back. The Co-op pays the lion’s share of our taxes. When they said they were coming back, I think that helped a lot of people to decide that they were coming back too,” Neiman said.

She also explained in a community so dependent on agriculture, the Pilger Farmers Cooperative, with its 45 workers, was the backbone of the local economy.

The Co-op’s general manager, Aaron Becker, said the tornadoes did all they could to break that backbone.

“It came right through. The office was the first thing that it affected, and it pretty much followed our property line all the way through town,” Becker said.

The village grocery store, gas station, a fertilizer plant, chemical warehouse, several storage buildings and 13 grain bins—all Coop properties and all uprooted in minutes.

Becker said the cost of the losses is somewhere between $10-$15 million.

But there was never any doubt the Co-op would rebuild; which is why Becker said his first order of business was getting the grain elevator, what he calls the “money maker,” back online.

The new grain elevator consists of seven large bins, with a combined capacity of over one million bushels, close to the pre-storm capacity. The bins stand out from their surroundings, towering over empty fields of grass and weeds where homes and businesses once stood.

Becker says the Co-op was fortunate to get the bins installed in time for harvest, but the process of rebuilding the area’s economic engine is just beginning, and planning for the future, takes time.

Pilger's seven new grain bins make use of some of the same foundational supports as the old bins. The new bins are bigger, however. Pilger Farmer's Co-Op General Manager Aaron Becker said the new elevator has close to the same storage capacity as the previous one, and he added they plan to expand once the ground thaws in the spring. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

The front facade is the last remaining piece of the Pilger School. Pilger is in a consolidated school district, and residents are divided on whether to rebuild the school in Pilger, or build a new facility in neighboring Wisner. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

“Like the fertilizer plant for example,” Becker explained, “we’re building that in our property far enough [to one side] to where if we want to add on five years later, we can do it.”

North of the Co-op, what remains of the old Pilger school sits like a giant tombstone, a monument to the storm. The village is in a consolidated district, and of the 75 students who came here, only three actually lived in Pilger.

Superintendent Chad Boyer said the district is looking at four construction plans, but only one involves rebuilding in Pilger. Boyer said eventually the district will need to do something to more permanently accommodate the displaced students, but for now they’re making do. (To hear Superintendent Boyer explain the four options, click here)

“We have three temporary modulars. They are up on the elementary lot here in Wisner, and that’s working out very well for our students,” Boyer said.

Construction on a new school facility is most likely months away, but Diane Davies said work on her family’s new storage barn is coming along rather well.

“Hopefully, I will be using an office space in it, which is why we started this building first before the house,” Davies said, “but the bulk of it will be used by the fire department.”

The Pilger Volunteer Fire Department hasn’t taken a call since the tornadoes destroyed the fire hall. Davies said after learning of the trouble the department was having getting a new facility, she went home and spoke with her husband.

“He said you know we really don’t need all of this storage space for quite a while, so it seemed only reasonable that they might as well use it until then,” Davies said.

Many of the damaged homes in Pilger have been repaired. Some new homes have even been built.

Mike Mattson wanted to rebuild, but says he couldn’t —and not because of the extensive damage.

Mattson and his son were in their basement when the tornado sirens went off. When they came out, Mattson said almost everything his family owned was gone.

“We waited and we got our property surveyed, but then the survey came back and said our basement was below the flood plain level, so we had to tear our basement out,” Mattson said.

He can’t have a basement because the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s guidelines (under the National Flood Insurance Program) say new structures in a flood plain have to be built one foot above the base flood stage.

To Mattson, the guidelines mean he can’t have the one thing he said saved him and his son. When coupled with ever increasing flood insurance premiums, the cost to stay in Pilger became too much to bear.

“We wanted to have our family there. We wanted to grow old in it. Raise our kids there, grandkids, and retire from that house. FEMA is the one that forced us out. The tornado didn’t. We’d rebuild no problem. But [FEMA’s] regulations and this flood insurance premium. No. We’re not going to pay that anymore,” Mattson said.

So now he and his family live eight miles east of Pilger in Wisner, where he doesn’t have to deal with FEMA anymore.

Village Clerk Kim Neiman doesn’t have that option. She’s been waiting at least four weeks for approval from Washington on several cleanup and repair projects. Neiman estimated the storms caused about $8 million in damage to village property. The cost to personal property, however, is still being tallied.