Friday, May 13, 2016

Riding Out a Twister: “What Stands in a Storm”

Last week, tornados were touching down in Oklahoma, spreading death and destruction in their wake.  Personally, I know tornados only from movies, like 1996’s Twister. But those who’ve actually survived them tend to laugh at Hollywood’s portrayal of storm chasers, the hardy (and sometimes faintly crazy) souls who risk their lives while trying to study extreme weather events.

Kim Cross knows about tornados first-hand. A resident of Birmingham, Alabama,  she’ll never forget April 27, 2011.
That was the climax of a three-day outbreak, when 349 tornadoes raked 21 states in the American South. One of them, a so-called EF4 multiple-vortex tornado, flattened huge swaths of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, seat of the University of Alabama. Like everyone else on that fateful  day, Kim stayed glued to the TV broadcasts of meteorologist James Spann, who forecast the path of the oncoming twister. As it seemed to head straight for her neighborhood, she grabbed a helmet and hunkered down with her family in her home’s safest room. Fortunately for Kim, the tornado struck seven miles away, leveling almost everything in its path. Others weren’t so lucky. That tornado claimed hundreds of lives, not to mention property damage. Many of Tuscaloosa’s stately oaks, hundreds of years old, were toppled by the force of the winds. The city will never look the same again.

As a journalist at Southern Living, Kim was asked to cover the superstorm’s aftermath. That’s how she came to unearth dozens of heartwarming stories of survivors helping one another get past the tragic day. After receiving multiple awards for her magazine work, she was primed to write a book. What Stands in a Storm: Three Days in the Worst Superstorm to Hit the South’s Tornado Alley was published in 2015. It’s a powerful narrative, which follows the storm’s path by way of the experience of both survivors and victims. In one chapter, “Slouching Toward Tuscaloosa,” Kim vividly cuts between the stoic men at a fire station, storm chasers photographing a funnel that’s heading straight toward them, a vigilant hospital administrator, and three college seniors exchanging frantic text messages with their loved ones back home. Binding these vignettes together is the TV voice of James Spann, warning one and all to get out of harm’s way.          

As a trained journalist, Kim was hugely concerned with accuracy. That’s why she established for herself some ground rules based on the way cinematographers capture the visual landscape: “I couldn't let you, the reader, see or know anything the character in that scene didn't see or know at that moment . . . . To help me do that, I imagined myself as a camera operator. In the first scene, we are panned out, seeing the big picture. In the second scene we zoom in a bit and can see the inside of a firehouse. In the third scene we zoom in even more, on two college students in a car.” Suspense comes from the fact that the reader never knows ahead of time who will live and who will die. Kim understands these people so well that she can convey their essence through their actions and social media exchanges, without ever putting into their mouths dialogue she can’t verify.

And she’s terrific at using words to set the scene: “At the Salvation Army, thirty-five people sought refuge in the dining hall as the wind blasted open the doors and stripped away the roof. A steel building that crumpled like a wad of foil was hurled into the seventy-bed shelter, which collapsed upon the impact. An electrical substation twisted like a telephone cord, and the lights went dark across town.” 

Kim Cross, the 2016 recipient of ASJA honors for full-length non-fiction,  will be a featured speaker on my “Award-Winners: From Pitch to Publish” panel at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors in New York City. It all takes place May 21, and the public is cordially invited.

By the way, the paperback edition of Kim’s book has a new subtitle: A True Story of Love and Resilience in the Worst Superstorm in History. And here’s a sample of the elaborate timeline she created to help tie the storm’s moment-by-moment progress to her narrative.  

On the left are weather maps charting the advance of the tornado

No comments:

Post a Comment