I haven’t been a regular viewer of the Weather Channel since I moved to sunny coastal Southern California, but even this region does have its weather issues. (And when weather is a story here, it’s huge.) It’s literally been years since this mostly desert climate has received adequate annual rainfall, and that’s led to a wildfire “season” that lasts nearly year-round. The wildfires clear land that turns into mud and floods when we do get rain. And while they’re geological rather than meteorological phenomena, any weather is technically “earthquake weather,” and it’s nearly impossible to forecast that.
Having spent most of my first forty years living east of the Mississippi River, and half of those south of the Mason-Dixon line, these are not weather issues I grew up with. I’ve grown accustomed to them after living here for more than a decade, but it still feels weird not to have–or need–a rain-contingency plan for outdoor events from May through August. On the other hand, when I’ve traveled back east with my California family during the spring and early summer, they’ve been thoroughly taken aback by rain at that time of year, let alone thunderstorms. They’ve never had to evacuate to a shelter during a hurricane, or huddle in the downstairs bathroom with the dogs to wait out the tornado sirens. I’ve done both, and if I told you I missed either I would be lying. What Stands in a Storm, journalist Kim Cross’ account of a deadly April 2011 tornado outbreak, was a thoroughly engrossing reminder of something I’m grateful to have left behind me (fingers crossed that climate change won’t bring it back).
The phrase “Tornado Alley” usually conjures up the Midwest, but Cross establishes that these wildly unpredictable, relentlessly destructive storms hit the Southeast harder, and give the worst of it to Alabama. Spring’s stormy transitional weather makes it the most active time of year for tornado outbreaks, and the three spring days at the center of What Stands in a Storm‘s narrative spawned more than 300 of them. That’s more story than this book can be expected to cover, and so Cross focuses on the impact of a few of the 62 tornadoes that struck Alabama on April 27, 2011. The “Behind the Book” section of Cross’ website includes maps, timelines, and insights into her research and writing process that provide additional context.
Weather events have a natural dramatic arc–preparation, strike, climax, aftermath–but they are also naturally impersonal; they may take down whatever gets in their way, but there’s no intent behind the damage they cause. The arc needs to be associated with people and places to form a compelling narrative. Cross finds hers in tiny Smithville, Mississippi, just west of the Alabama state line; in the decimated small town of Cordova, Alabama, struck by tornadoes in both the morning and afternoon of April 27; and in hard-hit Tuscaloosa, where students at the University of Alabama set aside studying for finals to take shelter. They’re all connected by the storms, of course, but also by their common trusted source of information about them, meteorologist James Spann and his team at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham.
The weather team also provides a framework for Cross to convey some storm science. Even with modern weather technology, it’s nearly impossible to forecast tornadoes precisely; broadcast meteorologists can only watch for the conditions that favor their development, and warn when they are present. To learn more, Spann and other professionals offer training to amateur weather junkies and enlist them as volunteer storm spotters and stormchasers. These folks are often portrayed as thrill-seeking daredevils, but many of them provide valuable “ground truth” reporting of actual tornado sightings and behavior back to the pros, enabling them to communicate specific, detailed warnings to those in the storm path. But the pros can’t control heavy rains and winds exceeding 150 MPH, and heeding their warnings and following every rule for shelter and self-protection still can’t guarantee their listeners’ safety. The emotional weight of What Stands in a Storm rests in Cross’ depictions of several of those listeners and what became of them on April 27, 2011. The tornadoes passed through quickly, one after another, but affected these people for days, months, and years afterward.
I don’t feel right identifying true weather stories as “genre kryptonite”–I’m not sure the concept of “genre kryptonite” is even applicable to nonfiction–but they’re definitely a subcategory of narrative nonfiction that tends to hook me. What Stands in a Storm is a more narrowly focused example than books like Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial or the just-released Katrina: After the Flood by Gary Rivlin (which I haven’t read yet, but plan to), but it’s no less fascinating for its smaller scale. It’s well-reported and engagingly told, with a strong sense of its place and people, and it immersed me in its completely non-manufactured natural–and human–drama.
Foreword by Rick Bragg
Audiobook read by Tracy Brunjes
Atria Books (March 2015), hardcover (ISBN 1476763062 / 9781476763064)
Nonfiction: social sciences, 320 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Tantor Audio, April 2015, ASIN B00WAFNQ90)
This post contains affiliate links to IndieBound
April 27, 2011, marked the climax of a superstorm that saw a record 358 tornadoes rip through twenty-one states in three days, seven hours, and eighteen minutes. It was the deadliest day of the biggest tornado outbreak in recorded history, which saw 348 people killed, entire neighborhoods erased, and $11 billion in damage. The biggest of the tornadoes left scars across the land so wide they could be seen from space. But from the terrible destruction emerged everyday heroes, neighbors and strangers who rescued each other from hell on earth.
With powerful emotion and gripping detail, Kim Cross weaves together the heart-wrenching stories of several characters—including three college students, a celebrity weatherman, and a team of hard-hit rescuers—to create a nail-biting chronicle in the Tornado Alley of America. No, it’s not Oklahoma or Kansas; it’s Alabama, where there are more tornado fatalities than anywhere in the US, where the trees and hills obscure the storms until they’re bearing down upon you. For some, it’s a story of survival, and for others it’s the story of their last hours.
Cross’s immersive reporting and dramatic storytelling sets you right in the middle of the very worst hit areas of Alabama, where thousands of ordinary people witnessed the sky falling around them. Yet from the disaster comes a redemptive message that’s just as real: In times of trouble, the things that tear our world apart also reveal what holds us together.
“Patti Parker watched the dark funnel grow until it filled the whole windshield, blackening the sky. Its two-hundred-mile-per-hour winds were furious enough to blast the bark off trees, suck the nails out of a two-by-four, and peel a road right off the earth, and it was charging at sixty miles per hour toward everything she loved most in the world—her children, her husband, their home. She was racing behind the massive storm, down the seven-mile stretch of rural highway between her and the life she knew.
“Smithville, Mississippi, was much smaller than Oxford, the postage-stamp of native soil that William Faulkner called home. Too tiny to appear on some maps, it was a 1.5-square-mile speck of a town about ten miles west of Alabama and twenty miles southeast of Tupelo, where Elvis was born. Set on the banks of a dammed river some locals believed tornadoes would not cross, Smithville was a place where women put on makeup before going to the Piggly Wiggly, planned dinner around choir practice, and took their families to Mel’s Diner for fried catfish and the town’s late-breaking news. It had one stoplight and five churches.
“Smithville’s earsplitting tornado siren, just fifty feet from Patti’s house, had been screaming so often this spring that she found herself sleeping through the warnings. A high-pitched, lugubrious wail, it sounded just like the air-raid sirens of World War II. When people heard it, they would run into their closets and bathrooms, although many would pause first and go outside to stare up at the sky.
?The sirens had interrupted Patti’s work again today in the neighboring small town of Amory, Mississippi. The executive director of the local United Way, she had been at her desk answering e-mails and reviewing disaster plans. When the sirens screamed she sighed and joined her colleagues in the stairwell, pausing by the coffeepot along the way to pour another cup.
Tornado season hovered like an unspoken question over every spring in the South. It was just part of living here. But this time, when someone opened the metal doors beneath the stairs to peek outside, Patti noticed a sinister shift in the wind.”