New Book on the 3 May 99 Tornado Outbreak

Remember the 3 May 1999 outbreak? The inevitable book on it finally has arrived. Oklahoma born journalist Nancy Mathis’ new tome, Storm Warning: The Story of a Killer Tornado, has hit the streets, courtesy of Touchstone Publishing (a unit of Simon and Schuster). This book arrives just in time for chase season and is sure to stir interest among severe storms enthusiasts.

Storm Warning is a little different from many weather related books, in a good way. In a note to me, Nancy once summarized her motivation very succinctly, as follows. I don’t think she would mind my sharing:

    My goal in this whole enterprise was to try to tell the story of this amazing event, the people it affected and how people like you and your colleagues saved lives, probably hundreds of them, based on the decades of work by people like Fujita, Doswell, Burgess and Crawford and all the others.

By in large, I think the author succeeded, whereas so many other writers of severe weather stories have fallen into the tar pits of gross inaccuracy, wild sensationalism, irrelevant and tangential commentary, mythical pseudoscience, or unsubstantiated speculation. Nancy, showing a highly uncommon degree of concern for a nonscientific journalist, tried very hard to get facts straight and make sure scientific concepts weren’t being misrepresented or butchered.

The story does digress for a good while into the Woodward tornado of 9 Apr 1947, and into the life and times of Ted Fujita, but those are worthy subjects of diversion. If it seems at times that the writing isn’t wild and scintillating, it’s probably because she’s not making stuff up just to keep the reader hooked. Instead, she’s trying to portray the truth of the event and the background of the folks involved, some of which indeed is stranger than fiction. I could tell from the time she first came to Norman to interview several of us connected to that outbreak that this was going to be different — in a worthy way — from most “storm stories.” As such, I offered to help her to “get it right,” and she took me up on it.

I did assist with proofreading for the book and was an occasional subject. As such, I won’t do a full review here or elsewhere, because I’m not independent enough from the effort. Nevertheless I can assure you that, while it didn’t come out perfect in every way, it’s a far cry better done than the overwhelming majority of tomes I’ve seen devoted to severe weather events, victims of violent weather, storm chasers, and/or severe storms scientists. This book devotes a good deal of coverage to each, and is well worth the money and trouble to order from an online source or purchase in person at your local bookstore.

Storm Warning will appeal most to storm connoisseurs, anyone interested in Oklahoma history, natural disaster stories or lay science writing.


4 Responses to “New Book on the 3 May 99 Tornado Outbreak”

  1. Joel Genung on March 15th, 2007 4:17 pm

    This is the endorsement I was looking for! Today while browsing at B&N, I stumbled across it in the “Nature” section, read a few paragraphs and placed it back on the shelf. Obviously, I failed to look deeper into its origins and I’m heartened to hear that you had a hand in its publication. It’s now on my “To Read” list and thanks for the review, Roger!

  2. Susan on March 19th, 2007 10:02 am

    I just read this over the weekend and enjoyed it enormously. While obviously not an expert, she’s done a great job of writing for weather geeks like me who are thrilled to see people like you, Roger, and Ted Fujita, Chuck Doswell, Josh Wurman, etc, get the props they well deserve. In addition to telling the story of the May 3 1999 outbreak, she’s done a good job summarizing the history of tornado research in the United States. Definitely one the best popular books ever on the topic, at least until Doswell writes his book (are you listening, Chuck?!) on the Tristate Tornado.

    But Roger, I must add that your assiduous proofreading missed her use of P-16 for the P-61 Widowmaker. Ouch!

    Sure missed the lack of pictures and diagrams, though. Even if the publisher wanted to save money by not printing photographs, a path chart of the May 3rd outbreak would have been exceptionally useful.

    I’d recommend this to anyone interested in the topic.

  3. tornado on March 20th, 2007 2:29 am


    I agree about the lack of art and photos. Indeed, there were some good pictures taken of the tornadoes and damage that day, not to mention radar imagery and perhaps some human interest photos, that could have made that book an absolute knockout. Nancy deserved at least to be given space for a handful of photos and illustrations in the middle.

    Alas, it was not the first time a publisher shortchanged their own nonfiction tornado book by eschewing potentially useful and relevant illustrations. In Tom Grazulis’ “The Tornado Nature’s Ultimate Windstorm,” most of the photos are very old, often material recycled from Flora’s “Tornadoes of the United States” and (free) public domain sources. I know Tom deeply lamented OU Press’ parsimony in this regard, because the book could have been so much richer with fresh material and the publisher’s having the guts to license some rights-managed imagery for it. I think OU Press absolutely screwed him on that deal.

    In each case, such unnecessary nickel-and-diming down of the publication cost robbed the publisher of an opportunity to earn back their cost in added sales, and robbed the author of still more kudos for otherwise fine tomes.

    Occasionally and for years, I’ve encouraged Chuck to forge forward with a severe weather book of some sort, illustrated of course with his own fine photography. I hope he does. Perhaps a successful publication of his upcoming collaborative book with several other scientists, on the Tri-State tornado, will push him in that direction upon the latter’s completion.

  4. tornado on March 28th, 2007 5:59 am

    Comment relayed from Joel Genung:


    I must tell you, this was a most excellent recommendation! I picked it up yesterday at Borders and finished it about an hour ago. I must tell you, reading the final outcome of Kara and Jordan Wiese’s encounter with A9 in Bridge Creek was somewhat of a shocking footnote; something that hit me in the gut. Add to this Jordan’s later encounter with cancer and it’s easy to see, we all have much to be thankful for. I can only hope he is on the road to recovery.

    I was somewhat surprised to see a curious error on page 116: “moving toward (red) and away (green) from the radar.” This is a hard one and I had to
    re-check the NEXRAD web pages to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding the signature! Still, only us net controllers would really care and what the
    heck, the basic concept was captured! 😉

    The book was a great read, does an excellent job on recapping so much of where the science has evolved and it was also a nice tribute to Dr. Fujita and all of you dedicated folks who have made our skies safer through your hard work and knowledge. Plus, it also paid tribute to The Meatwagon and its two frequent occupants. May she rest in peace!

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