Jonny Auping | Longreads | April 2018| 15 minutes (4,096 words)
In his recently released book, The Man Who Caught the Storm, Brantley Hargrove tells the story of an unlikely legend named Tim Samaras, who lived his life grappling with and addicted to one of nature’s most dangerous marvels.
Samaras was a tornado chaser with a simple but absurdly treacherous goal: to get close enough to a twister to glean data from within its core. Hargrove, who spent months on the road chasing tornadoes for the reporting of the book, retraces and recreates Samaras’ most dramatic missions, culminating on May 31, 2014 in El Reno, Oklahoma, where he would face off with the largest tornado ever recorded. That same tornado would take Samaras’ life along with those of his son, Paul, and fellow chaser Carl Young.
“We now live in an era when the Mars Pathfinder rover has touched down on the Red Planet,” Hargrove writes. “The human genome has been mapped. But twisters still have the power to confound even the most advanced civilization the planet has ever known.”
Samaras legacy and life’s work represented a crucial foundation for how to better understand and predict historically unpredictable tornadoes.
But The Man the Who Caught the Storm is hardly a meteorological textbook. Rather Hargrove weaves a uniquely American tale of adventure — “nowhere else on the planet do tornadoes happen like they do in this country,” as he explained to me — diving into the circumstances and makeup that leads a man to chase what he should be running from.
Lacking even a college degree, Samaras was an outsider in the meteorological community, who not only developed one of the most sophisticated information-gathering probes the field had ever seen, but also had the courage (or perhaps unrelenting urge) to personally drop that probe in front of a twister.
Hargrove sat down with Longreads to discuss tornadoes, his own storm chasing, and the addicting thrill of being in the presence of something that can cause unfathomable chaos and destruction.
When did you first find out about Tim Samaras?
I think the first time he really came on my radar was on May 31st, 2014 or maybe the day after on June 1st when I’d heard about what happened.
It seemed almost kind of impossible. I was like Is this true? I mean, a 2.6 mile-wide tornado was not something I’d ever heard was possible. And this guy trying to get data from it. It set off all these alarm bells, and I wanted to know who this guy was and why he was trying to get so close.
When did you know you wanted to write something significant or book length about him?
I would say probably immediately.
I thought this was a story that cried out for a really detailed telling. I was at the Dallas Observer at the time so that seemed like the best way to get into it. Start small and get a basic feel for how this happened and who this guy was. I was able to do that. They sent me out there to do that. But even as I was reporting that story I was like Somebody should write a book about this person. Why not me?
Let’s talk about tornadoes in general for a minute. You wrote in the prologue that until recently the core of a tornado was as untouchable as the surface of the sun. In the past five years tornados have wiped out entire cities. Why has key information been so elusive about these things that are pretty common?
Yeah, they’re incredibly common. There are like a thousand every year. But it’s still hard to predict where they’re going to come down.
I was riding with really seasoned storm chasers, and we busted a lot. They’re a super transitory occurrence. Sometimes the atmospheric mechanisms that are going to produce them don’t even become apparent until that afternoon. For a lot of years it was very hard to collect data from them because it was so hard to predict when they’re going to come down.
As we developed more tools that were more effective at gathering data, like Doppler radar, that still left some blind spots. Radar operates on line of sight so when you’re scanning a tornado from a distance of a mile, you’re dealing with the curvature of the earth interrupting the radar. You’re dealing with trees and houses and stuff like that. So you’re getting a lot of the upper part of the tornado, but you’re blind to what’s going on near the ground, and that’s where we live.
Other countries do have tornadoes, but not like we get them here…. We are not lucky. Though chasers would say we’re extremely lucky.
It was a big missing piece, and to some respects, it still is. If you can’t see what’s going on where we build our houses and where we live, you’re missing a large part of the puzzle. That’s a blank space in the equation.
Researchers have been trying for decades to get that kind of data. It’s hard to find tornadoes to begin with. It’s even harder to maneuver in front of them and then drop an instrument that can survive once it’s been run over, if you’re even lucky enough to get it run over.
Researchers had been trying to do it for decades, which is what made Tim kind of like this incredibly unlikely person to pull it off.
I thought it was interesting how there’s this complex science, but then the practicality of what they’re trying to do is actually really easy to understand. You have to get the probe close enough to the tornado to collect the data from the core, but it has to be built structurally to somehow prevent it from flying away once it’s in the tornado’s presence.
Simple in theory, extremely difficult in practice.
It’s relatively easy to attribute a geographical location to hurricanes, volcanoes, and earthquakes. Can you explain what makes up Tornado Alley and is that part of the country overlooked in terms of the risk it presents from a natural disaster?
Nowhere else on the planet do tornadoes happen like they do in this country. We are far and away the most tornado-scattered place in the world.
Is that pure chance?
No, it’s not. It’s a coincidental alignment of geographical features. We have cold polar air coming down from the north. We have a dry, westerly mid- to upper-level wind coming out of the west over the Rockies. Then we have this surge of Gulf moisture in the springtime coming out of the Gulf of Mexico. When those three air masses collide, as they do each springtime, very bad things happen.
Nowhere else on earth has those elements. Other countries do have tornadoes, but not like we get them here.
Not as common?
Not as common and not as violent.
We are not lucky. Though chasers would say we’re extremely lucky.
This book couldn’t have been done without a certain amount of explainers on how tornadoes form and are tracked, but I think there’s no question that it’s more of a character-driven book than a science-driven book. Was that approach something you were conscious of and decisive about from the beginning?
This book went through a pretty significant winnowing process.
At the outset, I had one whole chapter about Ted Fujita who was one of the godfathers of tornado science. I had chapters about my own chases, going out with some of Tim Samaras’ colleagues and buddies, going out and seeing F4s. I had whole chapters about just my adventures.
At one point, my editor, John Cox, and I decided that this book needed to be much more narrowly focused. As cool and interesting as my own experiences were out there chasing tornadoes, the reader, we hoped, would be gripped by Tim’s story and then feel that my stuff was an unnecessary distraction.
We made a choice that this was a book about Tim Samaras, tracking his rise and ultimately piecing together what went wrong at the end. The reader needed to know some science to understand what was going on and understand why what Tim was trying to do was so significant. But we didn’t want to overburden the book with that.
I can imagine if I had these experiences with tornadoes and then written about them, it would be painful to take that out.
Deeply painful [laughing].
I had spent several weeks out on the road, driving every single day and sleeping in some shitty motel, and spending a lot of money, frankly, going chasing.
The last week that I was out, we had this transcendent experience with these four F4 tornadoes in one afternoon. And I was like Wow, this book. I just hit the jackpot. I had just had an experience that very few people in the world have ever had. That kind of event probably won’t be seen again in my lifetime.
But in the end, I think I saw that whatever pride I had in the experiences I had while reporting this book had to be secondary to the story. And the story is Tim.
You had to put Tim’s story ahead of your story. You also never let the tornado become a bigger character than the tornado chaser. The tornado doesn’t have a family. It doesn’t have friends or a personality.
Initially the book was just called “The Storm.” Then we made a conscious decision as we were finishing up the manuscript that this book isn’t really about the storm. The tornado’s a character that Tim is matching up against. But he’s the real focus.
A tornado is present in almost every chapter, but then there’s this sort of serendipitous chapter about a long lost son that’s dropped in there. It’s almost as shocking anything in the book.
We almost didn’t include that chapter, but in the end, I thought it was important. I thought it was illuminating about Tim as a person. He didn’t have any obligation to this kid, who was a grown man. But he took it upon himself to bring him into his family. I thought that spoke in an interesting way about Tim’s character. My editor and I both agreed it needed to be part of the story, even if it wasn’t necessarily serving this straightforward narrative that we were building towards. It was a character-building moment. It showed that Tim was a pretty damn good guy.
He’s having such a good time. He’s doing what he loves. He’s exactly where he’s supposed to be in the world… He’s in the presence of what will ultimately kill him.
Let’s talk about the reporting process. You never met Tim. What sort of things did you rely on primarily to tell his story?
Primarily interviews with everybody who would talk to me; his wife, his daughters, his brother, his son, his colleagues, his brother-in-law and neighbor, people he worked with, and people he butted heads with, just everybody that I could think of.
One of the great things about storm chasers is they film everything they do. All their chases are generally on tape. So I had this incredible access to all his chase footage. All these chases from like 1990 to 2013. This incredible vault that allowed me to watch him in his element. I can hear what he’s saying. I can see what he’s seeing. That was an enormous help.
Was that surreal and eerie to watch that footage? These are dangerous missions, the same sort of missions that would take his life.
In a sense it was. Because you see some close brushes. You can see where he was getting a little too close, maybe pushed a little too far. In that sense, you can kind of see the trajectory of where he’s headed.
But at the same time, there’s also a tremendous amount of joy in those images. You can hear it in his voice. He’s having such a good time. He’s doing what he loves. He’s exactly where he’s supposed to be in the world.
I guess you could say it’s kind of both. He’s in the presence of what will ultimately kill him.
I imagine that writing the book without his wife Kathy’s cooperation would have been nearly impossible.
It would have been a piece of shit.
Did you have to sell her on participating in the book?
Kathy and I have come a long way. Whenever we first started talking was less than a year after she lost her son and her husband. I think it was strange for her at first, but we exchanged information.
That August 2014 was the first time we sat down for an interview. It was quite a lengthy interview. I think we talked for six or seven hours. It was difficult for her. Obviously it was incredibly painful for her to talk about these things. She was going through something that I couldn’t even fathom. And I tried. I tried putting myself in her shoes, and I just couldn’t imagine the magnitude of that loss.
Do you know if she’s read the book?
Yes, she read the book before anyone but my editor read it. As you can see, the book is dedicated to her and my mom.
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Tim was an outsider. He didn’t have a college degree. He’s sort of this scientific savant with an adventurer’s mentality. On paper, he was dramatically unqualified to be in the meteorological community. Outside of maybe an extra chip on his shoulder, what sort of advantages do you think his DIY education lent him for tornado chasing?
He was really good at teaching himself things. Part of his duties when he was getting on the team for his day job as an explosives expert at Denver Research Institute, he had to teach himself physics and electrical engineering. That’s some dense stuff.
I think he approached storm chasing the same way. I think that his experience, working with these high-speed electronics and trying to figure out how to characterize and measure extremely dangerous events that you don’t want to be anywhere near, in some ways, was the perfect experience that this field had been waiting for, to develop an instrument that could actually live in that place. Not only live in it, but return with data.
You spent a lot of time with storm chasers, some of whom just did it for hobby. You went along with them on these missions. Was there any sort of common thread or personality trait that draws people to this dangerous and frustrating work?
Most chasers are just hobbyists. A minority of them actually chase for science. For the most part it’s a hobby. I met a bunch of them. They come from all walks of life.
It’s just, once you’ve seen one — if you’ve had the luck of actually seeing a tornado, man, that’s like nicotine. It gets under your skin.
Tim was one of the few chasers that had a specific mission with a lot on the line. There’s this sort of back and forth between achievement and thrill. What do you think drove Tim more: the desire to glean information that could maybe someday protect people or just the adrenaline of being so near death and this natural marvel? Is it possible to parse out those motivations?
I think they’re all inextricable.
Tim was an intensely curious person. He was a problem solver. He had thrown himself body and soul into developing these remarkable instruments. He wanted to put them to the test. And he wanted to see if he could do what a lot of people said was impossible.
What he had to do was get in front of one. That is just not a place you ever want to be.
At the same time, I mean, he thrilled at being in the presence of these storms. Once you’ve seen them and you understand the vast magnitude of the ocean of atmosphere that contributes to severe storms, it’s almost like a riddle. It’s like a puzzle. You’re trying to solve it and locate the pieces that are going to make it all come together.
I don’t think he could separate it out. I think he wanted to contribute to the science. I think he wanted to make his chasing mean something. But I think he also enjoyed the hell out of it.
He would have been doing it anyway.
Yeah, he would have been. Even if he wasn’t deploying probes, he still would have been out there chasing.
He developed these sophisticated, never before seen probes that could measure a tornado, but the process by which he had to go about getting it to the core was seemingly unsophisticated and incredibly dangerous. He essentially had to find a tornado, predict its path, get in front of it, drop a probe, and then drive off before the tornado got him. Am I wrong in thinking that’s an insane way to gather data?
Make no mistake, it was incredibly dangerous. What he did was orders of magnitude more dangerous than what I did back in 2014 when I went chasing for this book.
What he had to do was get in front of one. That is just not a place you ever want to be. But that’s where his storm chasing skill came in. That’s honestly where some of his nerve came in. The guy just had nerves of steel.
There’s simply no other way to get that kind of data. If you want to get on-the-ground, in situ data you got to get in front of that thing and drop your instrument package. Because radar is probably one of the most useful tools in atmospheric science, but it can’t get that ground level data. If you want to get it, you’ve got to do it the way Tim did it.
Tim takes part in a mission in Stratford, Texas in 2003. It’s a successful chase, but it very nearly turned tragic. There was debris flying over his car and baseball size hail. His partner on that mission stopped chasing with him after that. He said, “You can only roll the dice so many times before things go wrong.” Was Tim in denial of that logic or was he just a man possessed?
I don’t think any of us can ever really see how dangerous something we’re doing is becoming.
I think he intuitively understood the odds game. I’m just not as sure that he could see it in relation to himself. He tried to be careful. But the nature of what he was trying to do was inherently dangerous.
It’s a tough question and one I wrestle with in the book. What was his understanding of the risk? Because there’s no making safe dropping a probe in the core of a tornado because if you make it safe then you’re not going to get it in the core of a tornado. You have to be pretty close. You have to wait, to use the cliché, until you can see the whites of its eyes. There’s no making that safe. I think he understood that, but I don’t know if he saw how dangerous what he was doing was becoming.
The most dramatic and perhaps the most detailed scene of the book was of the tornado that took the life of Tim and his son, Paul, and his partner, Carl, in Oklahoma. How were you able to reconstruct that scene?
I had a lot of help. Gabe Garfield, who was a research meteorologist, knew Tim and Paul and Carl. It wasn’t clear who was going to figure out exactly what happened. So he took it upon himself because he had more access to the relevant materials — the video footage, the radar imagery, all that stuff — than anyone else did.
He conducted this really intensive study, probably more for Kathy than for anyone else.
He took me on the drive. Every turn that they took that day. He drove with me and sort of annotated it. Here’s where the tornado was. Here’s what they would have seen. Here’s what they were saying in the car.
So I was able to put it together using a variety of different media and using Gabe as a resource to moment by moment, minute by minute, second by second understand what they were seeing and experiencing. And what their decisions were. We can’t be in their head, but we know what they did and we know what they were saying to each other [from surviving audio from within the car]. You can infer with pretty high confidence why they made their decisions.
Retracing Tim’s missions and life story, I imagine that was a grueling task, piecing together stories from various sources in order to tell a complete story. It sort of reflects a point you make about storm chasing. It can be very boring, and the near misses have to be demoralizing. You were in a unique situation where you were chasing a tornado chaser. Did you empathize with their missions?
Oh my God, yeah, absolutely.
You have to travel thousands of miles just to see one cool thing. I completely empathize with putting all these resources on the line and coming up short time after time. How frustrating that is.
I don’t think any of us can ever really see how dangerous something we’re doing is becoming.
My chasing, even though it’s not on the pages, it infuses a lot of my understanding of Tim. Just the exhaustion you feel. The long hours you spend driving and staying in these shitty motels. Eating this bad food. Those were all my experiences, too.
It wasn’t until I went chasing that I really understood the guy. Because I was thinking I really need to see some tornadoes. If I’m going to write a book about a guy who made his life work gathering data on tornadoes, by god, I better see some. I felt an incredible amount of pressure to see some. So I can only imagine, Tim’s got this grant money from National Geographic on the line. He’s got to produce something.
Did ego play a part in Tim’s death?
That is a good question.
I don’t know if ego is the right word. Maybe confidence.
I think Tim had been in the presence of incredibly dangerous storms many times. I think there was a certain level of comfort that he had gained. I think that was an especially dangerous combination for a storm that really no chaser or scientist has experienced.
The El Reno, Oklahoma tornado did things that I don’t think any chaser would expect a storm to do. It grew in scale tremendously. It went from a big tornado to an enormous, record-breaking tornado. Around the same time, it sped up. It started going about highway speeds. And it made a pronounced turn to the north. Tornadoes don’t usually do all those things. So it caught him off guard. And it wrapped itself in rain so they couldn’t see it. They didn’t know where it was.
It was essentially a tornado designed to kill storm chasers, and a tornado especially designed to kill somebody like Tim.
How will climate change affect tornadoes going forward?
We don’t really know, honestly. There’s some research that indicates that warming oceans are going to release more water vapor into the air, which produces instability, which is what tornadoes feed on.
There’s also research that indicates that convergent winds coming in different directions, which is another key ingredient for tornadoes, might actually decrease.
So in some sense, it’s kind of a wash. But I think a growing consensus is that while it may add up to fewer overall tornadoes, the outbreaks that you do have, whenever all the mechanisms come together, might be really, really bad. Like worse than anything we’ve ever seen.
Tim wasn’t even supposed to be in Oklahoma that afternoon for a deployment. He just couldn’t resist. You’ve mentioned your own storm chasing throughout this conversation already, and in the author’s note you mentioned that even after you finished the book you went back and chased more storms, understanding the allure they hold over chasers. Can you articulate what’s so addicting about it?
It’s being in the presence of something that’s almost an aberration of nature. Seeing something that very few people in the world will ever see. I think there’s an element of being in the presence of something you know could kill you very easily.
Tornadoes and tornadic storms with their striations — the way they rotate — it’s almost like a sculpture. They’re transcendently beautiful. And being in the presence of one, every follicle of hair on your body will stand on end.
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Jonny Auping is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas. His work has been featured in Texas Monthly, The New Yorker, VICE, New York Magazine, Slate, and McSweeney’s.
Editor: Dana Snitzky