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Issue Date:  September 9, 2005

By Mark Svenvold
Henry Holt and Company, 290 pages, $26
Stormy weather blows Americans' breath away

Reviewed by RICH HEFFERN

Last year on the evening of May 22, Nebraskan Will Togsted’s two-story house was lifted straight up into the air and whisked off by a tornado. Author Mark Svenvold interviewed Mr. Togsted afterward.

“There was a greenish sky, and then, in the blink of an eye, everything turned black. … Then it got real quiet,” Will recalled.

Then came a thunderous downpour unlike anything Will had ever seen in his life. … He saw debris sailing sideways very high in the sky. As Will descended the basement stairs and turned around, he saw the screen door fly away. … [then] from his position near the furnace, Will felt a sudden, tremendous pressure drop. … He looked up and saw above him the floor joists, row upon row of support beams upon which the first floor was anchored, all of them suddenly moving as one to the northeast. The house then lifted and sailed off with the storm.

Mr. Svenvold’s book describes the severe spring weather that plagues the Midwestern United States every year. The author rides along with a new breed, the “storm chasers,” men and women who in their SUVs prowl the back highways of Oklahoma, Kansas or Nebraska in the months of May and June waiting for super-sized thunderstorms to develop, hoping to catch a glimpse of and record on film or camcorder their most fearsome spawn, the funnel clouds that pounce on towns and trailer parks.

He tags these adventurers paparazzi del cielo.

Mr. Svenvold coins another new phrase, “catastrophilia,” to describe a cultural phenomenon he’s observed. “As we’ve become increasingly insulated from the physical world, the weather, the shifting of air masses, the ever changing atmosphere, has become one of the few things that seems solid in an increasingly ephemeral world.”

We are particularly fascinated, according to Mr. Svenvold, by the extremes of weather -- the cyclone or the paralyzing ice storm or the destructive flash flood. It’s a “near-death” experience, one that usually involves the “near-death” of others, not our own. Last week’s wide coverage of Hurricane Katrina is a good example.

Mr. Svenvold chronicles the dramatic evolution of the Weather Channel from a small niche on the early cable television spectrum to a hugely profitable venue with a gigantic national audience. The Weather Channel’s success owes much to its regularly scheduled “Storm Stories” features that highlight the dramatic effects of “big weather” -- hurricanes, floods and tornadoes -- on human life and our puny structures.

For nearly 20 years, however, the Weather Channel has carefully avoided focusing much attention on what Mr. Svenvold calls the “biggest weather story of our time” -- global warming. Finally in May last year, the channel announced an official position on climate change. Mr. Svenvold is dismayed, however. “They clouded and distracted and soft-pedaled the issue, reflecting the Weather Channel’s desire to maintain a position of expedient detachment about the role of human manufacture and consumption -- our role -- in exacerbating [global warming].”

Read this absorbing book. Try not to get anxious, though, when thunder rumbles over the horizon.

Rich Heffern is an editor with Celebration Publications and a frequent contributor to NCR. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 9, 2005

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