(Adds preliminary estimate of EF-4 tornado damage in Pilger)
By Michael Avok
PILGER, Neb., June 17 (Reuters) - Residents who were forced to leave a small town in Nebraska leveled by a tornado that killed a child and injured more than two dozen people began returning on Tuesday to salvage belongings from their battered homes and businesses.
The town of Pilger, just several blocks wide and home to about 350 people, took a direct hit on Monday afternoon as large 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 center of town."
Preliminary estimates from surveys on Tuesday found several EF-4 damage points in Pilger, the weather service in Omaha said. EF-4, the second most severe rating for a tornado, indicates cyclonic winds of up to 200 mph (320 kph).
A 5-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 100 miles (160 km) northwest of Omaha, was the hardest-hit town in a three-county area. Among the damaged or destroyed buildings were the town hall, fire department, post office, library and school, Unger said.
Brian Reeg, who lives in nearby Winside, stood bewildered, looking at a pile of rubble that had been St. John's Lutheran Church in Pilger.
"This is where I was baptized, where I was married and went to church my whole life," Reeg said.
Mark Aken, 58, who moved to Pilger three weeks ago, said he did not even have time 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 was 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. Residents had about 10 minutes to take shelter after warnings sounded, officials said.
STORM THREAT MOVES EAST
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.
A threat of severe thunderstorms on Tuesday stretched from eastern Montana as far east and north as New York and Vermont, storm prediction center forecaster Bill Bunting said.
Monday's 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 houses in Madison, Wisconsin, and 15 to 30 houses in nearby Verona, along with an elementary school, Dane County Emergency Management said.
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 suffered minor injuries, a city spokeswoman said. (Additional reporting by Katie Schubert in Omaha, Nebraska, Mary Wisniewski and Nick Carey in Chicago; Writing by David Bailey; Editing by Eric Beech, Grant McCool and Peter Cooney)
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