Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Review: "Storm Kings" by Lee Sandlin

I have been a SKYWARN volunteer storm spotter for the National Weather Service since 2009.  As such, I am constantly striving to learn more about severe weather, and especially tornadoes.  Until recently, however, I was largely ignorant of the history of severe weather forecasting--not just the academic side, but the human side as well.  Although there have been other books that have gone into specific severe weather outbreaks, there have been few if any books that would provide a broad and readable overview of this important subject.

The recently-released book, "Storm Kings," by Chicago-based author and essayist Lee Sandlin, steps in to fill this gap.  From the first recorded severe weather outbreaks of the 1600's to the Joplin, Missouri disaster of 2011, Mr. Sandlin does an excellent job of bringing the human side of severe weather forecasting, and especially tornado forecasting, home to the general reader.  Ignoring the temptation to veer off into an abstract study of the complex mathematics and computer models that are so prevalent in today's weather forecasting, Sandlin wisely chooses to emphasize the human, practical side of meteorology.

Perhaps nowhere in the entire book is this made as clear as in the story of Ernest J. Fawbush and, especially, Robert C. Miller, the team who made the first successful tornado forecast in March of 1948 at Tinker Air Force Base, near Oklahoma City.  Another example is that of the late Ted Fujita, of the University of Chicago.  None of these men put any real stock in theory, nor in computers, when it came to severe weather forecasting.  Yet the work that they carried out has long been considered to be of fundamental importance in providing severe weather information that has helped save countless human lives, prevented innumerable injuries, and reduced or even prevented property damage down through the years.

By far the saddest part of this book is the repeated exposure of the darker side of human nature which Sandlin furnishes in "Storm Kings."  Yet, in order to put the subject matter into proper perspective, Mr. Sandlin frankly, and rightly, exposes the numerous instances of arrogance, infighting, backbiting, and politicking on both sides during the long history of weather forecasting in general, and severe weather forecasting in particular.  The display of mutual disdain, arrogance, and outright snobbery between the military and civilian weather services during the time when Messrs. Fawbush and Miller were doing their groundbreaking work is especially disgusting to this reviewer.  Yet, in order to fully understand and appreciate their accomplishments, their flaws, as well as their virtues, simply have to be made clear to the reader, and Mr. Sandlin has done just that, without hesitation or apology of any kind.

Overall, "Storm Kings" should be one of the first books that the prospective storm spotter, or storm chaser, should add to their library.   Even those who just want a general understanding of severe weather, and those who deal with it on a daily basis, will find this book well worth the investment.

"Storm Kings:  The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers," by Lee Sandlin.  (New York: Pantheon Books, 2013.)  ISBN:  978-0-307-37852-1.  $26.95 hardback.  Also available in Kindle and Audible Audio formats from

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