September 2007

Elizabeth Holden


F5: Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the 20th Century by Mark Levine

Growing up in the Midwest in a house with no basement, I developed a pretty significant fear of tornados. Our town was visited by them fairly often in the warmer months, though none ever caused any widespread destruction. The summer before seventh grade, I remember being at the pool, looking up at fluffy white cumulous clouds set against a bright blue sky, and muttering darkly to my father, “How high do you think the cloud tops are? Do you think they’re likely to develop into anything?” I grew able not only to differentiate between the different music played on The Weather Channel, but actually choose favorite songs. It was pretty bad.

So reading F5, Mark Levine’s story of tornado devastation, was, for me, like reading a Stephen King novel might be for the average person -- worse, because Levine’s well-crafted tale is true. In 1974, over a period of sixteen hours, 148 tornados hit the middle United States. Six of them were classified as F5s, so-called incredible tornados with the most destructive power, and twenty-four were F4s, the second most destructive. Comparing those numbers to the nine F5s and the country saw in the entire previous decade and the ten F4s the country averages each year makes it clear that the events of April 3rd and 4th, 1974, were of a scale with no historical precedent. Winds reached speeds of over 320 miles per hour. More than two thousand lives were lost, and over $600 million dollars in damages were created. The genius of Levine’s book, however, is that it doesn’t allow the reader to get lost in these staggering statistics. He weaves information on the history and science of tornado study in with a close focus on Limestone County, Alabama, a small community near the Tennessee border. Limestone was hit by an F5 and an F4 tornado in rapid succession, and the losses the people of Limestone sustained were of staggering magnitude. It is Levine’s detailed depiction of the lives of these citizens that truly creates a vivid picture of what happened in those fateful hours.

Levine opens the book by immediately thrusting the reader into a scene in which fifteen-year-old Felica Golden and her boyfriend spot one of the killer tornados while driving. From there he pulls back slightly in time, introducing details of Felica’s life (devout Christian, worried over her sick father, smitten with the older Donnie Powers but still level-headed) and starting to form a sketch of what life is like in Limestone County, Alabama in the 1970s. After this introduction, he switches to the generalities of science: what do we know about tornados, and how do we know it? The book proceeds along these lines, with chapters alternating between close-up snippets of life in Limestone County and overviews of related topics, like the life of Tatsuya Fujita, the man who created the scale for ranking the strength of tornados.

This format creates a sense of increasing tension. As the storms approach, the reader has already met several residents of Limestone County, and it is unclear how everyone will fair, especially as Levine includes more information about the other devastating tornados that popped up around the nation on that day as part of the same storm system. It is occasionally tricky to recall exactly who everyone is when he revisits Limestone County, due to the large number of people he introduces, but beyond those moments of “who is that again?” the book flows smoothly, with a quick pace like any good thriller.

Levine draws no bold conclusions about the meaning of the destruction that happened that day. His picture of the country at that time -- still reeling from an unpopular war overseas, divided on many matters -- makes it hard to avoid comparing it to this current era, but he does not press the issue. It only highlights that the lives these storms changed were not part of a distant time, unimaginable, but one very close to home. In his epilogue he visits the survivors as they are in the present, and it is clear that, though time goes on, these people still feel the aftereffects of those tornados.

F5 achieved several things -- it was thrilling, poignant, and informative at once. It is worth reading for, if nothing else, a slice of very unfortunate American history. But be warned -- if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself watching the skies with no small amount of trepidation afterwards.           

F5: Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the 20th Century by Mark Levine
ISBN: 1401352200
307 Pages