Deadly storms of unprecedented ferocity wreak devastation and an enduring emotional toll on a small Alabama community.
Magazine writer Levine’s debut is the second book this year to document unusually vicious tornado outbreaks in recent history. In Storm Warning (2007), Nancy Mathis followed a May 1999 onslaught in Oklahoma. Here, Levine zeroes in on the rural hamlets of Limestone County, Ala., hit by a series of storms that ravaged 16 states in April 1974. He mostly scants systemic analysis in favor of human interest, describing what actually happens to people unfortunate enough to be targeted by nature’s most destructive force (tornado vortex winds can exceed 300 mph) and considering its protracted impact on survivors. Levine probes individual recall and reaction to make it clear that the dazed storm victims seen thrust before TV cameras are often in the initial stages of numbness, melancholy and confusion that may persist for years, or decades. The author’s intricately detailed, slow-motion renderings of tornado assaults are riveting to the point of agony: “She is being pelted by a rain of stones. Sand-like bits, more glass than stone, prick her skin and are accompanied by a spray of gravel, and by larger, smoother, egg-sized rocks, polished by wind and water.” The book’s title refers to the Fujita Scale maximum of tornado wind force; like Mathis, Levine reviews the critical role Ted Fujita (1920–98) played in comprehending violent weather phenomena but finds the Japanese-born scientist curiously detached from tornados’ human cost.
A dramatic reminder that a once-in-a-lifetime tornado can last a lifetime for its survivors.