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The town of Pilger, just several blocks wide and home to about 350 people, took a direct hit on Monday afternoon (local time) as tornadoes swept across a farming area in northeast Nebraska, devastating up to 75 percent of its buildings, officials said.
"Pilger is gone," said Sanford Goshorn, director of emergency management for Stanton County. "The tornado cut right through the centre of town."
A five-year-old girl died in a mobile home and a second person died in a traffic crash east of town, Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger told reporters. More than two dozen people were treated for storm injuries at hospitals, officials said.
Pilger, about 160km northwest of Omaha, was the hardest hit town in a three-county area. Among the damaged or destroyed buildings: city hall, the fire department, post office, library and school, Unger said.
Brian Reeg, who lives nearby in Winside, stood, bewildered, looking at a pile of rubble that had been St. John's Lutheran Church in Pilger.
"This is where I was baptised, where I was married and went to church my whole life," Reeg said.
Mark Aken, 58, who moved to Pilger three weeks ago, said on Tuesday he did not have time even to unpack at the home he rented near the flattened church.
"There's a tree right through my front door," said Aken, who said he is staying with family in the area for now. "My van is upside down."
Unger said 40 to 50 homes were destroyed or damaged beyond repair when the tornado cut northeast through Pilger.
An area about six blocks long and six blocks wide was wiped out, with debris clogging roads. Crushed vehicles littered the area.
The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, reported at least one and possibly two cases in which a pair of large twisters touched down simultaneously, a rare phenomenon according to meteorologists.
Two weather service teams were surveying the damage Tuesday.
A threat of severe thunderstorms on Tuesday stretches from eastern Montana as far east and north as New York and Vermont, storm prediction center forecaster Bill Bunting said.
Monday's severe storms spawned preliminary reports of about two dozen tornadoes and wind and hail damage across parts of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.
Storms damaged two dozen in Madison, Wisconsin and 15 to 30 houses in nearby Verona, along with an elementary school, Dane County Emergency Management said. No injuries were reported.
High winds damaged about a dozen homes in Platteville in southwest Wisconsin and several buildings on the University of Wisconsin-Platteville campus, including its stadium. One person was seriously injured and several other people sustained minor injuries, a city spokeswoman said.