It’s odd, but I have a thing for tornadoes. I grew up in southern Indiana in the 1970s and 80s when Tornado Alley still ran through the area, (did you know Tornado Alley moves about over the years like a wandering river?), and we had no shortage of incredible thunderstorms, filled with no end of tornado watches. Fortunately I and my family never had direct experience with the devastation a tornado brings, but we came close during the massive outbreak in April of 1974. A tornado went right through our area that day, blew a hole in our neighbor’s garage, destroyed a tool shed in our front yard, tossed about the trailer park a quarter mile down the road, and destroyed a few houses a mile away. We weren’t home at the time, were on our way back from town. My mother stopped the car alongside the highway and made us lay down in the back of the station wagon. I can still remember the green and orange sky. That’s as close as we came. We got lucky. Up until my parents moved out of our childhood home ten years ago, you could still walk the woods behind and see trees that had been snapped-off by that funnel cloud all those years ago.
That 1974 Super Outbreak, as it’s called, was the largest tornado outbreak on record, until the 2011 Super Outbreak came along. WHAT STANDS IN A STORM is a story of that second, and larger outbreak. It relates the conditions that fed those storm, and recounts the stories of some of those who survived the storms, and some of those who did not. Author Kim Cross created the narrative of the book from interviews with the survivors and information given to her by those close to those that died in the storm, be it through saved phone conversations, text messages, or Facebook posts.
I went into the book thinking it’d be more weather-porn, and there is quite a bit of that in here. We get descriptions of what storms are likely to spawn tornadoes, how said tornadoes form, reports from storm chasers during this outbreak, and the weather personnel that reported during the wave of storms over those days in 2011. It’s all incredibly well written, explained succinctly, and very effective.
The bulk of the book, however, is focused on the people affected by the tornado that struck Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on April 27th, 2011. We see how the locals were affected that day, from Tuscaloosa weatherman James Spann, who reported on the storms that day; to 17 year old Johnny Parker, an amateur weatherman who survived, along with his family, a direct hit from a tornado; to Danielle Downs, Loryn Brown and William Chance Stevens, who all died together in the interior closet of a house destroyed only a mile from the University of Alabama campus.
Much of this book is built on the blocks formed from news broadcasts, interviews with survivors and family members of the dead, and overall sleuthing on the subject matter. It’s all wonderfully put together, so that none of the seams of those building blocks show. The book reads smooth and seamless. There are liberties taken with the recounting of the last hours of those that died, of course, yet even though based on only texts and phone calls, it reads as if the author was right there with the deceased in their final moments.
The final section of the book tells the story of the recovery of northern Alabama, specifically Tuscaloosa, and its people. We see the people coming together to help neighbors, volunteer search and rescue missions, people giving up their own last worldly possessions to those that they think are more in need, and communities coming together to feed and house each other. At times, this section was difficult to get through. As someone who’s always been fascinated by tornadoes, it can be hard to reconcile their power and beauty against the damage they do, the lives that they take. Cross gives us an up-close look at the survivors, the funerals, and the memories of those who didn’t survive. If I took anything at all away from WHAT STANDS IN A STORM, it’s to respect their power and be better aware of the consequences of their existence. Cross shows us those consequences, unflinchingly.
Once again, I’ve read a book that I thought would be about one thing, but turned out to be about another. Sure, there’s weather-geek stuff in WHAT STANDS IN A STORM, but beyond that, and thankfully so, Kim Cross has created a fantastic time capsule of April 27th, 2011, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She’s shown not only what mother nature can do, and how it affects those in her path, but also how people come together in the aftermath to heal, take care of each other, and live on.