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By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times

A storm featuring rare twin tornadoes tore through parts of Nebraska on Monday, leaving two dead and destroying much of the rural town of Pilger, officials said Tuesday.

The storm killed a 5-year-old girl and a motorist in his car, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency told the Los Angeles Times. The storm demolished at least half the homes and wiped out all the businesses in Pilger, population 352, she said.

“Our priority right now is to keep everybody safe,” spokeswoman Jodie Fawl said.

Some residents were being allowed to return to their flattened homes to retrieve possessions, but emergency response volunteers are being kept out. Officials have set up barricades around the town to keep everyone away because of fears of fires fueled by leaking propane tanks, she said. Twenty National Guardsmen are on the scene, along with police and emergency response teams from the state and the Red Cross.

The rural area, about 80 miles northwest of Omaha, also sustained heavy damage to its cattle herds and grain storage facilities. A two-story, brick middle school had much of its roof torn off and lost part of its upper floor, Fawl said.

Monday’s storm was part of a larger system that was continuing to move through the Midwest, according to the National Weather Service. Storms were predicted for a large area of the northern portion of the nation as well.

The weather service was forecasting a risk of severe thunderstorms Tuesday afternoon and evening from eastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming across parts of the Midwest and Great Lakes into the northern Mid-Atlantic and southern New England regions. The storms could spawn damaging wind and hail and possibly tornadoes.

The greatest risk for tornadoes will be in Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, according to the weather service. Hail is expected west of the Mississippi River, while damaging winds could strike upstate New York.

The names of the dead in Nebraska were not released. At least 16 people were taken to local hospitals and were listed in varying conditions, including some critically hurt, Fawl said.

The storms began about 3:45 p.m. local time Monday and cable television broadcast dramatic video of the twin tornadoes dancing through the plains, their tips about a mile apart and their funnels slightly veering away from each other. Officials on Tuesday will examine the area to survey damage and compute the strength of the storm.

President Barack Obama declared a major disaster for Nebraska and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts. Gov. Dave Heineman (R-Neb.) is expected to tour the devastation on Tuesday. He declared a state of emergency on Monday.

A shelter was established at Wisner-Pilger Jr.-Sr. High School in nearby Wisner.

Photo: Tasos Katopodis via AFP

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