Pilger, Nebraska didn't stand a chance against twin tornadoes that barreled across the plains and right through the small town on June 16th. With a population of 378, it's the sort of small, country town with probably two square blocks of century-old store fronts, and as many bars as there are churches, say two or three of each. In communities like this, people are close. You can't help but know everyone else in the area, and as townspeople took shelter they all, likely had a fairly good idea where everyone they knew was. As Gene Oswald, a nearby farmer told an Omaha World Herald reporter about taking shelter in a relative's basement with his nephew, who at one point peeked out a window and told Oswald, "Gene, there’s stuff flying above the co-op,”. Surely both men had an idea which friends and neighbors were taking shelter at the co-op. Five co-workers were huddled in the co-op office’s vault. Others were safe in the meat locker of the Pilger Store next door.
Meanwhile, this funnel was cutting a swath, heading straight into town. As I watch the video of the tornado crossing land that is very familiar to me (my family farm is about an hour north of Pilger) I remain detached until I see the water tower hover above the trees that surround the small town, and suddenly tears flow. The water tower makes it real, as it indicates that there's a community nestled among the trees you see from highway.
Here's an Omaha World Herald slide show of the damage in Pilger.
That's what community looks like on the open plains of Nebraska. Trees point to where people have gathered. There were few trees on the plains until people planted them. You can see for miles across the open prairie, with nothing impeding your view. Just miles of corn rows, alfalfa fields and pasture lands. It's stunningly beautiful. God's country.
So when I clicked through comments accompanying a news report of the Pilger tornado, and read random bits of outrage from fellow Americans, questioning why anyone would live where a tornado could wipe everything out, well, I got a little spun up.
We can pose that question to any area of the country. Why would anyone live where hurricanes hit? Or build a city below sea level (New Orleans, I'm looking at you.) Why would anyone live where there are earthquakes, landslides or floods? People are afraid of the unfamiliar. The thought of a hurricane is more terrifying to me than a tornado. Hurricanes cover more square miles, and the damage can extend for miles from the eye of the storm. Where I'm from, tornadoes are familiar, and random enough to rarely seem like an omnipresent threat to any one person.
The fact is, in the 50 years that my parents have lived on our family farm, not a single tornado has hit it, or touched down within ten miles of our property. As far as I know, we can say the same for the fifty years my grandparents lived on the same land. Building a home, and life and a livelihood in our little corner of Nebraska has been a good risk for the past 100 years.
Why would anyone live in the states frequently stricken with tornadoes? I'll tell you, it's for the time in between tornadoes. For the endless blue skies that meet at the horizon with endless prairie. The pleasure of seeing miles upon miles of fields of the deepest green sweet corn, and how it dances in a breeze. To crest a hill to see a handful of strong, beautiful quarter horses running to the fence line. To walk down a country lane, during a warm summer rain.
True, I left Nebraska for Colorado, where the cold isn't as bitter, mosquitoes are less populous, and where hay fever can't make me miserable. It wasn't that tornadoes that drove me away.
We all love something about where we live. When a horrific natural disaster strikes, we need to support each other through it. Not criticize an entire state as uninhabitable. We need to feel grief for the lives lost, in this case two lives, a five-year-old girl and a motorist. Now is the time to pull together to help a town recover.