PILGER, Nebraska (CNN) — Becky Hauf had always been told her little town of Pilger, Nebraska, would never see a tornado. Too close to the Elkhorn River, the folklore went.
Instead, Pilger got two. At the same time.
The rare twin tornadoes that spun through on Monday night wiped out the town’s business district, obliterated its fire station and ground 40 or 50 homes into rubble, Stanton County Sheriff Mike Unger said.
As much as three-fourths of the town of 350 is gone, Unger said. Two people died during the storm — one a 5-year-old. The second death — a traffic accident — was probably weather-related, Unger said.
Faith Regional Health Services in Norfolk said 16 people were critically injured in the storms.
The severe weather also caused damage in the Nebraska towns of Wisner, Stanton and Pender.
All four communities are within about 40 miles (64 kilometers) of one another, about an hour and a half northwest of Omaha.
The National Weather Service also received unconfirmed tornado reports from Iowa, North Dakota and in Wisconsin, where emergency workers were searching homes in Madison and Verona after possible wind damage there, according to police. There were no reports of injuries or deaths, authorities said.
The risk of severe weather will linger into Tuesday.
Portions of 17 states, from Montana to Massachusetts, were at slight risk of severe storms Tuesday, including the possibility of a few tornadoes, the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center said. No watches or warnings were in effect Tuesday afternoon.
Back in Pilger, storm chasers captured dramatic video of the twin tornadoes tearing through the countryside. At one point, the twisters straddled a state highway.
“It was terribly wide,” Marianne Pesotta told CNN affiliate KETV-TV. “I drove east (to escape). I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there.”
Hauf and other employees of the Farmers Co-op in Pilger rode out the storm in the convenience store’s cooler.
“It seemed like forever, but I guess it was only a couple minutes, and it was coming down on top of us,” Hauf told CNN’s “New Day. “But the coolers held together wonderfully.”
When she emerged, the first thing she noticed was the condition of the stock in the store where she’d worked for 20 years.
“I guess the first thing I saw was a … cupcake box and a 24-pack of Bud Light,” she said.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, who will tour the storm damage Tuesday, issued a state of emergency, putting the National Guard on standby to help if needed.