Shortly before my 17th birthday, the movie Twister was released in theaters. I've always had a morbid fascination with these mercurial storms, and have had more than a few very close shaves with their presence in my lifetime thus far. So of course, when a blockbuster movie about tornadoes was released in theaters, I HAD TO SEE IT. And it did not disappoint, though the quality of the graphics has not quite held up over time. LOL
My best friend and I drove an hour away to the closest theater for the privilege of watching the film, and we walked away that night even more in love with tornadoes than ever. I began studying all the information on these meteorological beasts that I could lay my hands on, and became quite obsessed.
Fast forward two years, almost exactly to the day that we made the trip to that theater. We were all grown up, graduated, and I had met the man I (foolishly) believed I was going to spend the rest of my life with. While babysitting my cousins for the evening, the TV programming in our tiny Texas Panhandle town two hours northwest of Lubbock was interrupted for a special news bulletin about Oklahoma City, of all places, and the current state of affairs in their neck of the woods. All it took was one little word: TORNADO. I was officially hooked to that screen for the duration of the evening. I watched in abject horror as the city was devastated by wave after wave of large-scale twisters, one right after another. It was, and remains to this day, a weather outbreak phenomenon unlike any that had come before it. By the time I left for home, I was shell-shocked by all the weather carnage I had witnessed. That day has stayed with me for all the years since, tempering my reckless regard for the power of these storms. The date was May 3, 1999.
In the spring of 2007, I was working at a Home Depot not far from my home here in Austin. During a particularly humdrum day, a new copy of Reader's Digest was left in the break room for us to enjoy. I was thumbing through the pages when I came across a book excerpt for a novel called Storm Warning: The Story of a Killer Tornado, by an author named Nancy Mathis. I've never found an RD story about tornadoes to be anything less than captivating, so I settled in to read. By the time my break was over, I knew I had to own the book. It was a chronicle of the weather events that had helped to shape the history of Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I had the book in my hot little hands in no time. It now holds a place among my all-time favorite books, and very likely always will.
The story begins with the narrative of the elderly grandmother of the author, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, performing her annual Native American traditions to ward off the evil wrought by these capricious storms. On the heels of that comes the tale of one Ramona Kolander, and her heartbreaking experiences with deadly Oklahoma tornadoes. These stories have a natural segue into one another, serving to weave a tale of the history of not only twisters in Oklahoma, but of the science of meteorology in general and the National Weather Service as we know it today -- through ALL of its various incarnations over the years based on whatever politics were prevalent at the time. Threads of this tale include the United States Air Force, the WWII nuclear attacks by the US on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (or NOAA), the Texas Tech University Wind Science and Engineering Department, and a host of brilliant scientists and meteorologists such as Gary England and the late great Tetsuya "Ted" Fujita. Somehow, this novel encompasses and ties together the scientific and the personal so seamlessly that you can't help seeing the innate connections between them.
Of the 74 named tornadoes that touched down that day across Oklahoma and Kansas, the most devastating by far was the F5-rated A-9 storm. The bulk of the storytelling regarding the destruction of OKC and its southern suburbs of Newcastle, Moore, and Bridge Creek were in reference to that single funnel. Eyewitness accounts from residents and visitors alike combine to tell a tale of such frightening complexity that it will leave you breathless with sorrow and dismay. I cannot imagine enduring such a thing and surviving. The book engenders a myriad display of emotions, from fear to sadness, and from hope to righteous anger. I walked away from the experience of reading this book with a wealth of knowledge that leaves me both floored and humbled. I would honestly give it ten stars, rather than my usual five.
If you're searching for a meaty read that will leave your brain well-fed and sated, this is exactly the book I would recommend. The author calls it "a little book about a big tornado". It is equal parts enthralling and educational, and it will stay with you after you're done.