What Stands in a Storm
CHAPTER 1 RACING THE STORM
3:44 P.M., WEDNESDAY, APRIL 27, 2011—SMITHVILLE, MISSISSIPPI
Patti Parker watched the dark funnel grow until it filled the whole windshield, blackening the sky. Its two-hundred-mile-per-hour winds were furious enough to blast the bark off trees, suck the nails out of a two-by-four, and peel a road right off the earth, and it was charging at sixty miles per hour toward everything she loved most in the world—her children, her husband, their home. She was racing behind the massive storm, down the seven-mile stretch of rural highway between her and the life she knew.
Smithville, Mississippi, was much smaller than Oxford, the postage-stamp of native soil that William Faulkner called home. Too tiny to appear on some maps, it was a 1.5-square-mile speck of a town about ten miles west of Alabama and twenty miles southeast of Tupelo, where Elvis was born. Set on the banks of a dammed river some locals believed tornadoes would not cross, Smithville was a place where women put on makeup before going to the Piggly Wiggly, planned dinner around choir practice, and took their families to Mel’s Diner for fried catfish and the town’s late-breaking news. It had one stoplight and five churches.
Smithville’s earsplitting tornado siren, just fifty feet from Patti’s house, had been screaming so often this spring that she found herself sleeping through the warnings. A high-pitched, lugubrious wail, it sounded just like the air-raid sirens of World War II. When people
heard it, they would run into their closets and bathrooms, although many would pause first and go outside to stare up at the sky.
The sirens had interrupted Patti’s work again today in the neighboring small town of Amory, Mississippi. The executive director of the local United Way, she had been at her desk answering e-mails and reviewing disaster plans. When the sirens screamed she sighed and joined her colleagues in the stairwell, pausing by the coffeepot along the way to pour another cup.
Tornado season hovered like an unspoken question over every spring in the South. It was just part of living here. But this time, when someone opened the metal doors beneath the stairs to peek outside, Patti noticed a sinister shift in the wind. She had told her husband she would wait it out and come home when the warnings expired, but she felt the urgent need to be with her kids. If she left now, she thought, maybe she could beat this thing to Smithville. Driving on the road was quite possibly the worst place to be in a storm, aside from a mobile home. But the pull of family overcame logic.
And now here she was, caught behind a mile-wide tornado that was rushing immutably toward the center of her universe.
At home in Smithville, Patti’s son, Johnny Parker, one day shy of his seventeenth birthday, was leaning into his computer, peering at the radar maps. What he saw made him prickle with fear. Severe thunderstorms were popping up across the state, dotting the screen with red and yellow tie-dyed splotches marching steadily northeast. He knew some of these storms were pregnant with tornadoes. A student of the weather since the age of four, when a storm nearly crushed his house with a toppled tree, he studied the maps, searching for patterns and clues that might foretell what the sky would do. His fingers flew over the keyboard, dashing off an e-mail warning to the hundred friends who followed his weather dispatch, which he always typed, because cerebral palsy hijacked his words somewhere along the path between
his mind and his mouth. Johnny could type a blue streak and you would never know, reading his forecasts, that he struggled to speak.
Johnny’s concentration was broken by the sound of his father yelling, calling him and his fourteen-year-old sister, Chloe, to come out and look at the sky. Together, they stared up at the terrible beauty: steel-colored clouds that whorled around like dishwater circling a drain. Johnny turned his head, and all he could hear was the terrible roar. He knew without looking what it was, and that it filled the Mississippi sky.
“Get inside!” yelled his father, Randy.
Johnny and Chloe raced to the innermost hallway, where a parade of tiny handprints on the wall, growing bigger through the years, marked the passing of their childhoods. They knelt and tucked themselves into balls, covering their heads with interlaced fingers, just as their teachers had taught them during tornado drills. The roar turned deafening, so large and loud they could feel it rumbling inside their chests. Their ears popped with the sudden drop in pressure as the walls of their home began to shudder. And then, in a moment most meteorologists will never experience, Johnny’s house came apart around him.
Four miles away on the two-lane highway, Patti pounded the steering wheel, stuck behind a slow-moving pickup truck. Rain and hail were sheeting down, and wind gusts were shaking her car, but this pickup was creeping down the two-lane road as if the world was not about to end. She wanted to pass, but through the curtains of rain she could see the silhouettes of falling trees, huge and ancient pecan trunks crashing across the road. The truck went around them, and she followed its blurry taillights through the sluicing rain. And then the truck stopped dead in the road, blocked by live power lines and mountains of debris.
Patti stopped the car, flung open the door, and ran to the driver’s window. An old man looked at her mutely. Her auburn hair snapped
like a flag and her green eyes squinted into the wind as she heard her own voice, as if in a movie, rising in pitch with panic.
“I’ve got to get through this! I’ve got to get home!”
The old man watched her as she started running, guided by some primal compass through a splintered landscape that, stripped of all landmarks, didn’t look anything like home. She ran through the mud, hurdling limbs, dodging live wires, and finding her way through the shredded remains of homes she had passed that morning. Her heels scraped on the asphalt, her stride abbreviated by her pencil skirt, her jacket flapping like frantic wings. The storm had roared on into Alabama, leaving in its wake an eerie quiet that amplified the muffled cries emanating from broken heaps. It registered that these were the voices of friends, of neighbors, of people who desperately needed help—of people who might be dying. But her legs would not stop moving under the directive that looped through her mind:
Get home—Get home—Get home!
The house on the corner was mostly gone, but the piles of yellow brick signaled she was close to home. A neighbor crawled out of a gutted house and called out to her, and Patti yelled back, but could not stop her legs from running. As she approached the spot where her home once stood, she screamed for her husband.
In her hand, her mobile phone lit up with a message from Johnny, the last thing his friends and family would read before the long silence.
Get to a safe place NOW!!