F5: The Devastating Tornado Outbreak of 1974 by Mark Levine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
F5 is the story of the April 3-4, 1974 "super outbreak" of tornadoes which spanned from Alabama to Ontario and from Illinois to Virginia. In 17 hours time, a staggering 148 tornadoes appeared, including two killer twisters which hit Limestone County, Alabama, the focal point of Levine's book.
The title derives from the Fujita scale (now the Enhanced Fujita Scale) which categorizes tornadoes into any of six groups, from the F-0, which might topple your patio furniture, to the terrifying might of an F-5, whose winds can exceed 318 miles per hour, and can disintegrate a sturdy home in under thirty seconds.
While Levine does touch on such things as how twisters form, he doesn't let his story become bogged down with too much dry science. He focuses most of the book on a handful of residents of Limestone County who lived through the storm, some of them forever altered physically, all of them changed in some way by what they experienced. Woven throughout, are snapshots of the United States in 1974, a country freshly withdrawn from the war in Viet Nam, and led by a president who would soon resign in disgrace. In Limestone County, schools had only been integrated a few years before, and wheelchair-bound George Wallace had been re-elected governor by a large margin.
In F5, you'll meet a black pastor who sat with his wife and three sons on the living room sofa as the storm intensified. Soon enough, the roof flew away and all of them found themselves airborne inside the fury of an F5 tornado. Then there is the teenage couple who are sucked out of their car and hurled into different parts of a nearby field. Later that night, as she is being wheeled down a hospital hallway with one of her feet hanging on only by a few tendons, she sees her boyfriend being wheeled toward her. She calls out to him. The dazed young man's reply: "Who are you?"
Levine does spend a fair amount of time talking about Ted Fujita, or "Mr. Tornado" as he came to be known. During a research trip into the areas hit by the twisters, the single-minded Fujita and his young assistant stop to eat in a local restaurant. Fujita cannot contain his excitement at the opportunity to collect and analyze so much data. He raises his glass and proposes a toast. "To tornadoes!" The assistant looks around nervously at the people around them, some who had buried loved ones. "Perhaps you shouldn't do that," he advises his famous mentor.
F5 is entertaining, but does take nearly half the book in setting the scene. Once the twisters arrive, however, it is hard to put down. I do recommend it.
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