When spring air warms quickly and the humidity rises, folks in Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas — the heart of Tornado Alley — scan the horizons and search for brewing storms.
But there’s a second Tornado Alley off to the east, in Mississippi and Alabama, where supercell thunderstorms can rage almost any time of the year.
Kim Cross’ powerful new book re-creates a three-day nightmare in late April 2011 when a record 349 tornadoes ripped across 21 states. The twisters left 324 people dead, wiped away neighborhoods and caused $11 billion in damage. No state suffered more than Alabama, which sees more tornado fatalities than anyplace else in the U.S.
Cross spent a year researching and documenting the stories that fill “What Stands in a Storm,” the stories of people caught in something far more devastating than they’d ever imagined.
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She tells the stories of people like James Spann, a revered TV meteorologist who stayed on the air hour after hour. She describes the heroic responses of firefighters, ambulance crews, doctors, nurses and ordinary folks to help those around them. Most of all, she creates fully fleshed human beings and describes their experiences and their fates.
Cross, a repeat guest at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, writes with a novelist’s skills, tossing off metaphors like a latter-day Raymond Chandler, using those images with sledgehammer effect as the dangers mount through those terrible days.
“One hundred miles north of Beverly Heights, a road was being shucked from the earth,” Cross writes. “A small bulldozer cartwheeled through the whipping dirt, and a dump truck careened 50 yards through the air, crumpled like a soda can. … At the Wrangler plant, a flock of blue jeans launched into flight, flapping like denim birds. A memory quilt that told the story of a life was carried over two counties.”
In a terse three-page chapter, Cross describes a tornado that ripped through tiny Smithville, Miss. She begins with the Baptist pastor sitting on the steps of his church, watching a funnel cloud a mile or two away, “and two heartbeats later, he could feel it breathing down upon him.”
He sprinted to the Sunday school building, the strongest part of the church, and, with 12 others, survived 15 seconds of nature’s fury. “The winds punched through the windows and pelted the people with pieces of trees and homes and dreams,” Cross writes. “One room over, the storm speared a two-by-four through the wall. So loud was the roar that they did not hear the church fall.”
Read “What Stands in a Storm,” and you’ll never look at a lowering thunderstorm in quite the same way again. The tornadoes are fascinating in a morbid way.
But at the core of “What Stands in a Storm” are the people, brave and noble in unimaginable situations, eager to help in the post-storm war zone, aching with loss when the depths of destruction are finally measured. That Cross was able to reconstruct these three terrible days, in patient interviews with hurting people, is remarkable.
In the end, the people in the book live, and sometimes die. And for those taken in the storms, the reader grieves.
What Stands in a Storm: Three Days in the Worst Superstorm to Hit the South’s Tornado Alley, by Kim Cross (320 pages; Atria Books; $25)