This wasn’t just any storm.
It was the largest recorded outbreak of tornadoes — 349 to be exact over a three-day period — in U.S. history, including the hardest-hit areas of Mississippi and Alabama. More than 324 people lost their lives and the storms caused more than $11 billion in damage.
Kim Cross, an Alabama native, who’s written for everyone from Southern Living and Cooking Light to Outside and Runner’s World, “felt really attached” to the stories of heartbreak and redemption.
According to Cross, “Beautiful things came from our brokenness.”
As part of her own ongoing healing process and those she profiled, Cross felt now was the time to capture the dramatic triumphs and emotional tragedies of the worst “superstorm” in her first book “What Stands in a Storm.”
Where were you on April 27, 2011?
We were watching (meteorologist) James Spann on TV and we saw the tornado on the Skycam and watched it come through Tuscaloosa (Ala.) … We had just moved from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, so we knew it really well. We watched it go through a town where we had lived and that’s when it got really real and very scary. We see it on another Skycam … and at some point, the power went off and everything sort of stops. It’s the only time in the modern world, where you hear true silence.
It’s really eerie, so we got in the closet. Well, it’s not a closet, but it’s our laundry room and it’s sort of a closet-size room in the center of the house. I think (my husband) Eddie made us put bike helmets on. … I went to my smartphone and followed James Spann’s Twitter feed. He tweeted a link to his live coverage, so we were able to watch it on our phones.
How much of your book is the same as reporting for newspapers and magazines vs. long-form storytelling?
I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I don’t believe in taking liberties with the facts. The facts are there and the way you connect them is the storytelling, but you can’t change them. You can’t fill in holes.
Sometimes not knowing is what you write about.
The way I was trying to describe it to someone was it’s almost like all of these facts from discrete sources come in and they’re like little tiles in a mosaic. If you have enough of them you can almost make this pixilated picture of something bigger. … For lack of a better term for it, it was almost forensic, where I would get one piece of information that would be kind of a clue that would get me digging in a certain direction that would lead to another piece of information.
I had these storyboards, where I had photographs from social media and printouts from Google maps, so I was able to piece together this reality.
You’re not an outsider, you shared the experience of surviving the storm with everyone in the book. Does that make it easier or more difficult to write?
It was really beautiful to see how people reached out to one another after the storm and helped strangers. What was interesting to me is that social media changed the way this happened. Before, you would give a donation to the Red Cross. You would take diapers there, write checks and you were kind of giving to this faceless organization.
Now, you could go on James Spann’s Twitter feed and see where he had tweeted that a mother across town was a mother who needed diapers and you could retweet and say, ‘I’m on the way. Message me your address.’ That was meaningful on both sides.
The book wasn’t merely about three days of storms, it was about the redemption that followed.
I had to have people who were threads throughout the whole thing that you could really wrap your heart around and get close to and one of the reasons we don’t have pictures in the book is I wanted these people to come alive in your imagination and for you to paint a familiar face. I wanted them to remind you of someone you know and care about, so that you really do get attached to these people and you’re devastated when bad things happen to them and you’re uplifted when good things happen — just like in a novel — but they are real people.