Thursday, September 19, 2013

Dispatch From The Field: "I think that Lee Sandlin's 'Storm Kings' will become a classic here at the Farmhouse. And one I will likely give to newcomers to our community here in Illinois! " --Joe

I have always been fascinated (and a little terrified) of tornadoes. I think many of us are. I have memories of hiding in my parent's closet when I was young, while the air raid sirens wailed, terrified the house might get destroyed, yet thrilled at the excitement of needing to take shelter from the storm. I remember making sure to open a window before we took shelter in the closet, as the conventional wisdom in the 1970's and 80's was that opening a window would help equalize the vacuum of the storm and reduce the chance the house would explode from the winds. Now I live in East Central Illinois, a place where tornado watches and warnings are much more common than in Denver. And a place where tornadic storms are not confined to a few months in summer: our first New Year's Eve Party here in Charleston brought a tornado just a few miles south. In December! Since moving here, I have become a trained storm spotter, to fuel my fascination with (bad) weather with a bit more knowledge to make me really dangerous. So when I heard about the newest book by Lee Sandlin, Storm Kings: The Untold Story of America's First Tornado Chasers,I knew I wanted to read it. 

This book is more than a story about tornado chasers. It is a fascinating history of the United States itself. Even as the continent was being settled, the newcomers were awed and terrified of the incredible weather that happened here. As the nation was founded  horrible storms befell the towns and cities. These "hurricanes" as they were often called could destroy a settlement in a few black moments. People returned from explorations of the vast, wooded interior of the continent with tales of "windroads," vast paths cut through the grasses and forests. Legends grew from these stories, and became part of the national character. Sandlin tells the stories of what we would now call storm chasers. Some of them are famous, like Benjamin Franklin, while others, James Espy may not be known outside of the meteorological community. Observations by survivors of these storms led to an, at times, rather virulent discussion of the causes of the damage. Was it steam power creating these storms? Some argued it was a vacuum force in the sky, while others said it was wind rising and falling. All of the competing theories would take centuries to find consensus. Sandlin's writing is engaging. There is quite a bit of science in the book, but the jargon is never too scientific for us lay folk. The descriptions of the damage is fascinating and gut-wrenching, and peppered throughout the book to satisfy that voyeuristic side of the reader. 
Despite the subtitle, this book is not really about storm chasers, like we know from the Weather Channel. Instead, it is about the scientists, members of the Army, explorers, thinkers, and tornado survivors whose collective work has brought us to our understanding of the crazy, and often violent, weather that rages in the United States. It is also a history of the formation of the National Weather Service, from its early days as part of the Army's Signal Corps. "Storm Kings" is a compelling, interesting, and I daresay important book, especially for those who live in tornado-prone areas. I learned a lot here. Not only interesting bits about the the early days of weather forecasting, but practical knowledge like opening a window to minimize the damage will do nothing but increase the flow of wind and hasten the destruction of a house in the path of a tornado. 

I think that Lee Sandlin's Storm Kings will become a classic here at the Farmhouse. And one I will likely give to newcomers to our community here in Illinois!


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