What Stands in a Storm: Three Days in the Worst Superstorm to Hit the South's Tornado Alley, by Kim Cross (Atria Books, 2015), is most effective in its descriptions of the moments just before the tornadoes strike, and the immediate aftermath. In one scene an ambulance full of EMTs arrives in a public housing development just after the tornado has passed and is immediately greeted by three different men carrying dead babies. The moment is gruesome, awful. Cross efficiently portrays the destructive power of tornadoes both in their impact on buildings and on human victims, those that survive the storms and those that don’t.
My objections to this book fall into two categories: moral and narrative. What Stands in a Storm is virtual voyeurism. It focuses on, highlights, and exploits the suffering and death the storms caused. It provides journalistic disaster footage, in essence, and to the extent that we enjoy the spectacle of airplane crashes and burning buildings and auto wrecks, we relish the onslaught of the tornadoes—because we survived, because Cross in her book allows us to experience the storms in a virtual and safe way. The value of learning about the April 2011 storms is significant, but In terms of the narrative, Cross uses a tried and true way of telling the story: she introduces an array of sympathetic characters, college students, parents, meteorologists, and policemen. She introduces the developing storms. She moves methodically from one description of the oncoming storms to another description of worried students watching the weather on television to a scene of a weather broadcaster worrying about whether people will heed warnings about the storms. Moving back and forth from storms to people, Cross builds tension, engages pathos and fear, pushes us towards the moment the storms strike. The choice of three college students hiding in the basement of a house in the storm’s path seems calculated in my opinion to evoke sentiment. It’s even more exaggerated by the phone calls and text messages that the students make to friends and parents. A hysterical mother describes the oncoming storms to her hysterical daughter. Cross makes clear by how she sets the story up that the students are going to die, well before the storms approach Tuscaloosa. We’re taunted and tantalized and tempted with their fates, and then trees fall, crushing the house where the students hide, killing them. Then we’re treated to the search for their bodies, the reactions of the distraught families, the funerals (and wedding) that follow.
Several hundred people died in these storms. Cross’ decision to focus mainly on young college students seems a cheesy ploy that ignores the extent of the deaths and destruction the storms caused.