Funnels of Death
Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the Twentieth Century
By Mark Levine
Hyperion/Miramax. 307 pp. $25.95
Earthquakes can happen anywhere. Floods and wildfires don't seem to play favorites among the countries they afflict. Even volcanoes, though mainly concentrated on the edges of continental plates, are scattered somewhat widely over the globe. But a full three-quarters of the world's recorded overland whirlwinds occur in a single country: the United States. For whatever reason, tornadoes -- as Mark Levine points out in his arresting new book -- are "the archetypal American natural disaster."
Books about tornadoes, of course, are also pretty common in this country. I can't pretend to have read more than a handful of them, but I'd be surprised if any were more excruciatingly vivid than Levine's F5. Other writers might do a better job of explaining the meteorological details of tornado formation or the mechanics of predicting and tracking the storms, but let's admit it: Those are the parts that many readers skim or skip. When it comes to conveying the crushing human toll of an American twister, Levine has few peers.
Certainly, the weather event he's chosen to write about -- the "superoutbreak" of April 3, 1974 -- offers a wealth of potent material. In the space of just 17 hours on that muggy spring day, 148 tornadoes raked across the midsection of the North American landmass, ravaging 13 states and the Canadian province of Ontario. An astonishing six of these were category F5 storms, known appropriately as "incredible tornadoes," the rarest and most extreme type. The storms killed 335 people and injured more than 6,000, while causing property losses of more than $600 million.
But statistics alone tell us little about a natural disaster; the real meaning of calamity is fully appreciated only when refracted through the prism of individual experience. Levine, an award-winning magazine writer and the author of three books of poetry, understands this, so he has chosen to center his narrative on the ordeal of a handful of individuals and families in a single rural county in northern Alabama. The two huge tornadoes that ripped through Limestone County (just west of Huntsville) devastated the lives of many residents. Levine focuses on just a few: a pastor and his family, a young mother with a newborn baby, a 30-year-old lineman for an electric company. These are solidly average Americans, but it's their very ordinariness that brings home to us the freakishness of the natural force they encountered -- a force that can barely be described, let alone believed.
Felica Golden, a 15-year-old high school freshman, was driving with her 18-year-old boyfriend, Donnie, when their car was overtaken by the storm: "Felica tugs the door's handle. It doesn't want to yield. She presses against the door with a shoulder. Nothing. She is trapped. Then, as though detonated, the door bursts open and is ripped from its hinges. . . . [The car] seizes and bucks in place. Its body is being mashed like wet clay beneath a heavy footstep. Its hood flips up. Its innards are jarred free and tossed. The windshield shatters. . . . Donnie disappears, pulled through the hole where the windshield was as though on a string, and spun into the darkness."
The specter of exploitation always threatens to overshadow accounts of this type. Authors of disaster books must work hard to avoid turning victims into objects of an unseemly voyeurism, and the problem is especially delicate when survivors and relatives of those affected are still alive. But Levine, a compassionate and conscientious writer, proves himself worthy of the trust he evidently received from the people he interviewed. He treats their stories with unfailing dignity and respect, giving the book a strong emotional grounding even in its most sensationalistic moments.
F5 does stumble in places. Levine's attempts to link the disruptive physical energies of the superoutbreak with the chaotic temper of America in 1974 (think Nixon, Patty Hearst, the streaker at the Oscars) never achieve coherence. And there are a few interludes of spurious Roland Barthes-style showboating ("In its lighthearted way, [streaking] too is a spectacle of reversal. It asks to be liberated from stale habits of being. It posits a triumphant, if brief, return to the rule of nature and of pure sensation.") that doubtless play better in the author's poetry seminars than they do here. But when Levine keeps his focus on the concrete, his touch is sure. F5 is a remarkable document, a stark demonstration that the price of even the most public disaster is always paid in the coin of personal loss. ·
Gary Krist's most recent book is "The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America's Deadliest Avalanche."