Monday, March 9, 2015


I was born and raised weather-stupid. In other words, in perpetually-70-and-sunny Northern California. But not long ago I spent a few years living in the SE Kansas town where my mother was born. Come to find out it's smack in the middle of "Tornado Alley." Yeah, no one had mentioned that. I learned right quick that tornadoes and the weather that produces them scare the living bejesus out of me.

It took well over a year after moving back to California for the mental and physical Pavlovian responses to a strong wind or rain to subside. Kim Cross' What Stands in a Storm brought those feelings roaring back with her visceral recounting of three days in April 2011 when the South's Tornado Alley suffered the worst superstorm ever to hit the area.

Between April 25th and 28th, 355 tornadoes touched down, leaving 348 dead over six states and causing $11 billion in damage. April 27 was the worst of it, with "ground truth" of 211 tornadoes, 4 of which rated E5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale used to measure the destructive force of tornadoes. How serious is that? The scale only goes to 5. In a typical year, the United States experiences ONE E5 tornado. In 2011 there were six, and four of those took place on April 27.

What Stands in a Storm is much more than weather data and a report of an apocalyptic superstorm. It is an epic recounting of the before, during, and aftermath of that deadly storm from several compelling viewpoints: the meteorologists and their support people trying to forecast and predict it, those in its path, and those responding to the disastrous results of its passing. Cross has managed to capture the intense anticipation and tension of waiting for tornadic weather, the gamut of emotions experienced while waiting it out, and the heartbreak and devastation that can follow for the randomly unlucky. Her descriptions of severe weather and the destruction it leaves behind are both spot-on and horrifying, painting a sadly accurate picture for the reader:

The supercell towered three miles above the earth as its funnel-child tore mercilessly through the heart of Smithville in a tantrum of annihilation. It plucked a red Ford Explorer up like a Matchbox car and hurled it into the town water tower half a mile away. The SUV flew another quarter mile and cratered a field. The storm lifted the cab of a tractor-trailer, flung it more than a quarter mile into a field, where it landed and crumpled like foil. It blew the town hall apart, wrapped cars around trees, and smashed apart buildings as if they were Legos, sending concrete cinder blocks careening through the air. It plucked trees from the ground; the few still standing were stripped of their bark.  The tornado sucked homes right off their foundations, leaving nothing behind but a lonely slab with anchor bolts that had once held down the walls. It sucked people into a hateful sky and pelted them to death with shards of the places they trusted to protect them. 

Cross does spend time, and rightfully so, on the scientific aspects of the weather and severe storm forecasting. Not to worry, she does so in a manner factual yet non-technical enough to hold the interest of the weather neophyte. The reader also gets a bit of background on tornado science, from its humble beginnings in the 1870s, to the inception of the Thunderstorm Project in 1945 (where pilots spent hours flying through storms to measure conditions - not a study for the weak of heart), to today's modern technology. Which is, despite advances, still something of a crapshoot.  This only heightens the danger and resultant heavy responsibility carried by the meteorologists who provide warnings (or not) of impending severe weather:

It could be anywhere. In an age where we can map the human genome, gather dust from a comet hurtling through space, and engineer synthetic DNA, science cannot predict exactly when and where a tornado will form. A radar cannot "see" tornadoes. It can only detect conditions known to be present when they form, such as signs of strong rotation. And the presence of those radar features does not prove that a tornado exists. The only way to confirm a tornado is for a human to lay eyes on it.

To warn or not to warn is a delicate balance, and meteorologists are constantly upping efforts to increase the accuracy of weather warnings in order to save lives. A heavy burden for sure, and Cross details what meteorologists go through as weather patterns move towards severe. Over-warning breeds complacency, a major cause of weather-related injury or death, but giving people sufficient warning is vital to their ability to seek adequate shelter.

Cross vividly portrays what television meteorologists, professional storm-chasers, and volunteer storm-spotters go through in order to make the best decision when lives are at risk. The author's year of research and more than 100 hours of first-person interviews pay off, as the stress and anxiety faced by these folks, not to mention the physical risks to those in the field, are palpable.

Hitting closest to home, What Stands follows first responders, professional and otherwise, and several ordinary people as the storm approaches and passes through. A few of these stories have "happy" endings despite the physical and emotional ruin of the supercell, others are heart-rending tales of violence and death, some so random and discrete as to not seem real.

Days later, I'm having trouble forgetting some of these people and their stories, the arbitrary inches or seconds that sometimes made the difference between life and death. But despite the devastating losses of loved ones, property, and infrastructure (in some agonizing instances the very places and materials set up to help in the aftermath emergency), it is clear that what stands after a storm is the resilience and determination of these people and their communities.

STREET SENSE:  You don't have to be a weather nerd to appreciate this story of nature and human nature. It's a difficult, emotional read, but one that is quite worthwhile. Additionally, "[t]ornadoes have been observed on every continent and in every American state at every hour of the day and in every month of the year." Reading this book will hopefully open some complacent eyes about our weather and how to survive when it becomes destructive.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  The thunderstorms began as the innocuous white cauliflower cumulus clouds that formed n the beautiful dance of convection that resembles a boiling pot in time-lapse movies.

COVER NERD SAYS:  Frightening and a bit beautiful, this cover pretty much says it all. I get angina just looking at it.


Chris La Tray said...

This sounds great. Thanks!

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

Cool. I figured this one would have a pretty small audience. I thought it was well done, and it gave me insight I didn't have (and hadn't thought about) regarding the pressures of weather folks in these situations. I always felt they were trying to amp up the fear to keep people watching. Which fell on deaf ears other than mine, as 90% of the people I lived around paid no attention.

Rhonda Hicks said...

Thanks for this review. I will never forget that April. We were without power for 8 days but it spared our house. The town where my UPS route was at the time was practically demolished. We did a bike ride through there later to raise money for those that lost everything. I can remember crying the entire ride - I've never seen devastation like that except on tv. Another memory is taking shelter in my house while keeping up with things on twitter and fb. I remember reading that my aunt, uncle and cousins had been at McDonald's and the glass windows blew in and they had to go to the hospital with cuts all over them. I am more scared of tornadoes than pretty much anything. Enough about me :) I enjoyed the review and will have to pick up a copy for the shelf. Love the cover.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

Scary stuff. I have only seen the results of such a storm on TV, mostly the Joplin, MO storm since it was so close to where I used to live. I don't think there's any way TV can do justice to the devastation or emotion. If you read this, I'll be curious to see if it brings back those emotions for you, Rhonda. It gave me the storm feelings for sure.

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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