Five Years after El Reno, “The Man Who Caught the Storm” Is a Stunner

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Above: In this file photo from May 26, 2006, in Ames, Iowa, Tim Samaras shows the probes he was using when trying to collect data from a tornado. Image credit: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall.

The story of the late tornado researcher Tim Samaras practically writes itself. Untrained in university science, but gifted with an engineer’s brain and with nerves of steel, Samaras developed small instrument- and camera-packed probes and placed them directly in the path of tornadoes. Samaras and a small group of colleagues gathered jaw-dropping datasets and images for years until May 31, 2013, the day that Samaras, his son Paul, and chase partner Carl Young were caught and killed in a massive tornado—the widest ever recorded—near El Reno, Oklahoma.

Cover of "The Man Who Caught the Tornado"

It takes thought and care to tell such a story well. Journalist and first-time book author Brantley Hargrove has done a masterful job in “The Man Who Caught the Storm” (Simon and Schuster, 2018). Hargrove captures the arc of Samaras’s life and its many dimensions—tinkerer, sky watcher, family man—with eloquence and respect. Hargrove also brings to a general audience the larger, complex world of research-oriented storm chasing more deftly than any other book I’ve read.

On one level, “The Man Who Caught the Storm” reads like a book-length prelude to the shattering conclusion that many readers will already know when they start out. Books like this are inevitably fraught with an sense of foreboding. Wisely, Hargrove steps lightly in foreshadowing the events of May 31, 2013, letting the threads that build to that event speak for themselves while focusing on the richness of Samaras’s life before that terrible day.

Growing up in suburban Denver, Samaras was a technology geek before that term existed. At age 10, he took apart the family’s TV set to see how it worked, and he became a licensed ham radio operator at age 12. As a teenager, Samaras found himself more interested in the real world than in book work. He opted to skip college, instead taking what became a long-time position with an applied engineering firm that measured and evaluated the destructive power of massive explosions.

In the 1990s, at the same time his career was evolving and his family was growing, Samaras found himself increasingly drawn to watching the stormy skies near Denver first hand. In these days before mobile apps and wireless Internet access, Samaras used ham radio and got trained as a SKYWARN spotter for northeast Colorado. Eventually, his engineer’s mind and his love of storms merged, and he began forging relationships with other scientist-chasers who were working to gather data in close proximity to tornadoes. One of these was Joshua Wurman, who developed the first Doppler on Wheels (DOW) unit in the mid-1990s during the original VORTEX field experiment.

Samaras’s best-known contribution to tornado science was his creation in 1999 of a simple, robust probe he called a “turtle.” As Hargrove puts it, “Tim’s dream is made flesh: a fifty-pound hunk of metal and electronics that looks like a traffic cone melting onto hot asphalt.”

"Turtle" probe used in Manchester, SD, tornado by Tim Samaras
Figure 1. One of the turtle probes created by Tim Samaras and used in the Manchester, SD, tornado of June 24, 2003, was added to a collection of scientific instruments at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Image credit: Photo by J. B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago/Getty Images.

The turtle and its successors were amazingly effective at staying on the ground in the midst of mind-boggling winds. On June 24, 2003, near Manchester, South Dakota, Samaras succeeded in placing a turtle directly in a tornado’s path. It detected a 100-millibar pressure drop—the largest on record for such a brief interval—and gathered mesmerizing video from inside the twister. The catch, of course, was that if the turtles were going to capture conditions inside a tornado like this, Samaras had to get them into the right place, often doing so with just minutes (or less) to spare. In contrast, Wurman’s DOWs could remain several miles from the vortex, allowing for a greater margin of safety. Samaras’s demeanor was so unruffled, and his skill so evident, that it was easy to overlook the dangers embedded in his tornado-sampling strategy.

Pressure trace from Probe 3 deployed by Tim Samaras on Manchester, SD, tornado
Figure 2. Pressure trace collected from Probe 3 in the Manchester tornado. Image credit: NWS/Sioux Falls, SD.

Before and after Manchester, Samaras found himself torn between organized storm research, with the chance to work with peers and gain much-needed funding, and the lure of solo work, where he could sample storms exactly as he wanted. In the end, Samaras’s independent streak won out, although he did put together a small group of like-minded colleagues for a multi-year project dubbed TWISTEX. He also secured funding from National Geographic and from the Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers” series, in which Samaras was featured from 2009 to 2012.

TWISTEX team in Iowa, circa 2009
Figure 2. The TWISTEX team in Iowa, circa 2009. Image credit: Tony Laubach/Wikimedia Commons.

By the early 2010s, Samaras had found a new interest: ultra-high-speed lightning photography. Teaming with independent researcher Walter Lyons, Samaras began hauling a camera-festooned truck to the Plains to document lightning flashes as part of an ambitious federal research project. On May 31, 2013, Samaras opted to leave the lightning van in northwest Oklahoma while he, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young took a Chevy Cobalt onward to the Oklahoma City area, where conditions would be extraordinarily volatile.

Hargrove relates the awful events of May 31 in a sober, non-hyperbolic fashion, with just enough detail to help the reader understand the decisions and the fateful twists that led to tragedy. In the end, the pushing-the-envelope strategy that Samaras had pulled off to gather such astounding data in the past came up short against an especially vicious and unpredictable tornado. I was pleased to see Hargrove go beyond May 31 to consider Samaras’s professional legacy and the family he left behind.

El Reno tornado of 5/31/2013
Figure 3. The El Reno tornado of May 31, 2013, was officially rated as an EF3. Although data from the RaXPol mobile radar indicated that winds up to EF5 strength were present, the small vortices producing those winds did not affect any structures that could be used to confirm an EF5 rating. Image credit: Nick Nolte/Wikimedia Commons.

For those of us who bristle at the concocted melodrama of reality shows, this book is a welcome tonic. Hargrove doesn’t hesitate to bring us into challenging territory: the deceptive comfort that can arise with repeated exposure to danger; the toll that storm chasing takes on vehicles, nerves, and relationships; the tensions that crop up when smart people differ on how to accomplish a tough task. When I found Hargrove discussing people I know, or events I’m familiar with, I was glad to see that his writing explained rather than exploited.

Hargrove’s prose is rich and varied, and he specializes in gem-like descriptions: a hail-pounded car “resounding with the erratic tattoo of heavy ice against metal,” or chasers “appraising cumulus clouds as though judging prize cattle.” The book isn’t meant to be a primer on tornado science, but there’s just enough explanation so that a lay reader will come away knowing more about how severe storm research has evolved over the past half-century. The book includes a generous helping of endnotes for readers who want to dig deeper.

Tim Samaras lived his life as a devoted family member, a respected colleague, and a cherished friend to many. Through his work, he gave us a rare glimpse in both images and data of what happens inside the fearsome interior of a tornado. I knew Tim for many years, though not as well as I feel I do now. If his untimely death has any meaning, perhaps it’s to remind us that even the most competent, knowledgeable people can get too close to a tornado. Judging from some of the videos I’ve seen lately, it’s a lesson that’s worth sharing far and wide. I give “The Man Who Caught the Storm” five stars out of five.

“The Man Who Caught the Storm” (list price $26 US) is available from Amazon.com and your local bookseller. Our next post will be Friday, when Dr. Jeff Masters will discuss the latest Atlantic hurricane season forecasts issued by CSU and TSR this week.

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