"Pilger is gone," said Sanford Goshorn, director of emergency management for Stanton County.
Just several blocks wide and home to roughly 350 people, Pilger took a direct hit from one of an estimated four tornadoes that the U.S. National Weather Service tracked across northeastern Nebraska on Monday afternoon.
At least one person, a 5-year-old child, was pronounced dead at an area hospital that also received more than a dozen others who were injured in Pilger, Stanton County Sheriff Michael Unger said in a press release. Another person in neighboring Cuming County also died. The circumstances of both deaths were not immediately known.
The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center, based in Norman, Oklahoma, reported at least one and perhaps two cases in which a pair of twisters touched down simultaneously, a rare phenomenon according to meteorologists.
The tornadoes, spawned by a super-cell thunderstorm system, appeared to be class EF-2 or EF-3 twisters, meaning they packed cyclonic winds of up to 165 mph (265 kph), said Rich Thompson, the lead forecaster for the center.
Property damage and injuries were reported by state emergency management officials across a three-county area, but authorities said Pilger, located about 100 miles northwest of Omaha, was hardest hit.
"The tornado cut right through the center of town." Electricity, water and sewage services were completely knocked out," Goshorn said.
Pilger was evacuated after the storm struck. Unger told Reuters the evacuees would be permitted to return sometime after 7 a.m. local time on Tuesday to retrieve what they could find.
Most of the homes and other buildings that once stood in an area approximately six blocks wide by six blocks long were wiped out, with debris strewn across roadways and into a field east of Pilger. Crushed vehicles littered the landscape.
Brian Reeg, from the neighboring town of Winside, stood bewildered in a lot where nothing remained of his church but a pile of rubble. "I just came to see if I could help," he said, surveying the wreckage. "This is where I was baptized, where I was married and went to church my whole life."
Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman declared a state of emergency for the stricken region. The state Emergency Management Agency said National Guard troops would be deployed to assist local authorities as cleanup efforts begin.
Storms also hit cities and communities in southern Wisconsin, smashing cars, windows, and trees, lifting a roof off a home, and cutting power to the University of Wisconsin at Platteville, officials and local media said on Tuesday.
The university said on its website that it would be closed on Tuesday due to extensive storm damage. "No major injuries have been reported, but some buildings sustained structural damage. Power is still out on campus and across much of the city."
A tornado touched down around New Glarus outside of Madison, and part of a roof was lying in the middle of a highway, a preliminary report from the Green County Sheriff's Office said.