Frequently asked questions

Where are you from?

Calabama. I've spent most of my life moving back and forth between California and Alabama. Born in Santa Barbara, I moved to Ozark, a small Alabama town where I spent a happy childhood swimming in catfish ponds by our house in the woods. We moved back to Santa Barbara for my middle school years, then to the panhandle of Florida, where I graduated high school and where my parents lived for 20 years. I went to college at the University of Alabama, got my first job(s) in San Francisco, then returned to Tuscaloosa for a graduate degree in journalism. If you add up the number of years I've lived in each state, Alabama wins (21 years and counting). I have called Birmingham home since 2004.

No. I mean, where are you from? Your people?

Oh, you mean my ethnic background? I'm Japanese, English, Irish, Dutch, Italian, and American-Indian, in descending order. In other words, an all-American mutt. My great-grandparents on my mother's side immigrated from Japan to El Paso, Texas. My grandfather was a doctor and a Japanese-American soldier who treated open-chest wounds in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. My father's side of the family hails from the other side of the other pond, and most of them live in Kansas and Oklahoma. 

What made you want to write this book?

I was a senior editor at Southern Living magazine at the time of the storm, and the Tuscaloosa EF4 came within about 7 miles of our office on April 27, 2011. Even though SL doesn't typically cover news, the editor at that time, Lindsay Bierman, felt compelled to tell the story. It was our Katrina. The story, What Stands in a Storm, ran in the August 2011 issue, and generated a flood of letters, emails, and comments from readers who said, "It made me proud to be Southern," and "This is the first time in 30 years I've ever cried while reading Southern Living." It won some professional awards, too. I realized the themes we focused on—faith, food, and fellowship—rang true for anyone who has ever survived a disaster, whether it be a hurricane, flood, earthquake, flood, or 9/11. I wanted to tell the whole story of the storm and finish with that uplifting message we gleaned from the research: The things that tear our world apart also reveal what holds us together. 

How long did it take you to write the book?

From contract to deadline, I had one year. I had already conducted a great deal of reporting for the magazine feature, and did much more on my own time as I was writing the book proposal. Even so, I spent the majority of the that year doing the research—reading books on meteorology, combing through news archives, poring over weather maps, scouring YouTube for scenes and glimpses of the storm, transcribing radio transmissions, and conducting more than 100 hours of interviews. By March of 2014, I only had one-third of the 85,000 words written, and three months left to write the rest. Two generous patrons gave me a place to escape to for my solo writing retreats. Dede Clements hosted me at the Edgeworth Inn, a lovely historic home in The Assembly of Monteagle, TN. Dan and Lisa Brooks let me get snowed in at their fantasy cabin in Georgia. I would sequester myself alone in these wonderful spaces and do nothing but write, eat, and sleep. I had to make a quota of 2,000 words a day to make my deadline. (I missed deadline by one day.)

What was the hardest part about writing the book?

Much of it was technically challenging, particularly understanding the meteorology and making it accessible for a non-scientific reader. But the hardest part—and also the most meaningful—was reaching out to the families of good people who did not survive. I had to approach parents who had lost a child, which is the most horrific thing I can imagine, and ask them to relive the most painful day of their lives. We wept together, and laughed together, and they helped me get to know their kids so well that I sometimes forgot I had never met them. They occasionally visited me in dreams. Now those people are a part of me, and I think—no, I know—they always will be.