Firstly, I will say that I do like this picture. It can have so many different meanings. the one that you said about the "storm enveloping the crowd," and that they (we) are easily distracted from the encroaching storm (whatever storm that is). But it could also mean that we have to keep our to our senses and see the beauty and goodness where it exists.
What I think Robert Adams does that makes his work important is that it makes us look critically at ourselves and what we have created-- like the title of one of his books, What We Bought. That is why, I think, most people do not like his work, but respond to other photographers who make more accessible pictures-- like mountain landscapes or the side of an old barn.
Though I do believe that, as Jim has said, "He is the best writer about photography living." Partly what makes him such an effective writer is his background in literature (he was a college english professor). Sometimes his books are difficult to read and really understand. It isn't because he uses to few or too many words, but it is the order in which they are arranged-- which is effective, but not without some work.
I don't want to turn this into a political argument, BUT-- no I'm kidding . . . I disagree that his work would not be understood without him stating his agenda, (but maybe that is partly due to me having similar feelings about the world-- overpopulation, unchecked growth, the destruction of ecosystems and the effects it has on us and they way we live).
I do not think though that his ties to academia that lead to his importance in photography. It has more to do with him facing issues that few were facing, and doing it so well for so long. His pictures are all very good, they might be unconventional, but they are still good. I am looking at the cover of Along Some Rivers as I write this (the one with the airplane). If the picture were composed any differently it would completely fall apart.
There is so much more that could be said about him and his work, both as a photographer and a writer, but that is all I have in me for now.