- Associated Press - Thursday, July 3, 2014

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - The very thing that saved lives when tornadoes destroyed much of a northeast Nebraska town last month - basements - generally won’t be an option for residents who rebuild.

That’s because most of the town of Pilger has been in a flood plain since 2004, so anyone rebuilding will have to make sure the lowest level of their home is at least one foot above the likely flood level, which is sometimes referred to as a 100-year flood.

Anyone who doesn’t comply with flood rules might have trouble getting flood insurance, which banks require if there is a federally backed mortgage, or face astronomical flood insurance premiums.

Officials say homeowners likely would have to invest in above-ground safe rooms in or near their houses to give their families somewhere to take shelter from storms. Or the town of about 350 could consider building community storm shelters.

The flood rules - combined with everything else - might persuade residents not to rebuild in Pilger, making the small town even smaller.

“I worry about that 24 hours a day,” said Village Clerk Kim Neiman, who has lived in Pilger 20 years and lost her own home in the storm.

These kind of rebuilding challenges are common when disaster strikes a community that is prone to flooding, said Brian Dunnigan, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources.

The June 16 tornadoes destroyed 60 homes in Pilger and damaged 60 others. Two people died in the storm, and nearly two dozen were injured.

The debris that surviving residents found upon emerging from basements it still being picked up today.

Trey Wisniewski said he held on to his wife tightly as he felt the storm pull at him. Larry Nelson said he was grateful he was able to seek shelter in his neighbor’s home because the storm reduced his home to the foundation.

Mike Mattson, 43, and his 15-year-old son, Brody, remained in their basement while the storm tore apart the bedrooms and top of their ranch style home in southwest Pilger.

“When I came out, I was amazed,” Mike Mattson.

So it’s understandable that Nieman said the flood rules aren’t going over very well even though they have been in place for a decade.

Nieman said Pilger residents generally fall into one of three groups at this point:

- People who have decided to stay and rebuild regardless of what’s involved.

- People who have decided to move and might already have bought a home in another town.

- And people who are trying to resolve disagreements with their insurers over whether their house should be replaced or repaired.

In addition to rules on new construction, anytime repairs will cost more than 50 percent of a home’s value, the homeowner will have to comply with flood rules and might have to raise their home up and fill in any basement.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that building an 8-by-8-foot safe room in a new home costs roughly $7,000 to $9,000, although construction costs vary across the country.

A 14-by-14-foot safe room costs about $12,000 to $15,000.

State and local officials say the lowest level of any rebuilt homes in Pilger will have to be 1 foot above the level expected in what’s called a 100-year flood.

Any home built below the likely flood level would face higher flood insurance premiums for every foot of the structure below that level, FEMA spokesman Michael Cappannari said.

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