Armed with a high school diploma and his own inventive abilities, Tim Samaras was an outsider in the PhD-dominated world of professional storm researchers. Yet in 2003, Samaras managed to do what many researchers and storm chasers believed was impossible. In a breakthrough that changed storm-chasing, he managed to place a probe in the center of a tornado. A decade later, Samaras, along with his son, Paul, and fellow storm chaser Carl Young, was killed by an unpredictable tornado in El Reno, Oklahoma. Samaras’s untimely death grabbed the attention of Weir-native Brantley Hargrove, who began researching Samaras. In his new book, The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras, published in April, Hargrove dives deep into Samaras’s adventures, eventually becoming a storm chaser himself. Texas Monthly talked to Hargrove about how he first became interested in tornadoes, Samaras’s work, and his own experiences chasing storms.
Texas Monthly: What made you to want to write about Tim Samaras?
Brantley Hargrove: I grew up in Texas, in Williamson County. When I was fifteen, Jarrell [a town near Weir] got hit by an F5 tornado. It just blew everyone away. It was one of the most violent tornadoes that most researchers have really ever seen. It killed 27 people there in Jarrell, specifically in this little subdivision near downtown. Just scraped the foundations completely clean – linoleum, carpet, everything was gone. Even the plumbing. I have distinct memories of driving through Jarrell in the aftermath and just seeing all these driveways that lead to nowhere. I’d never seen no clear evidence that a bunch of people have been lost in almost the same moment with my own eyes before.
By the time Tim Samaras came along, I heard about his Discovery Channel Storm Chasers show. When [the El Reno tornado that killed Samaras] happened, it was just a time when you could not not pay attention to tornadoes. This Tim character seemed really fascinating and compelling – this guy trying to go out there and get data from the cores of violent tornadoes.
TM: Samaras was the first to ever get a probe inside the center of the tornado, which is something that you described as basically equivalent to the moon landing. What kind of information do we have available to us now because of that?
BH: With Tim’s measurement, we actually had real specific wind speed data from the core. You’ve got engineers who now have something specific to build against when they’re thinking about building something that is tornado resistant. Tim [and his research] was the first time they actually had some pretty precise wind speed measurements from the core. Scientists use computers to create numerical models of tornadoes that they can study and try to learn about their structure, and they can actually compare that against the pressure profile that Tim’s probe got it in Manchester, South Dakota. They can look at their idealized numerical vortices and compare them against the real thing. I am not saying Tim Samaras completely solved the puzzle with his measurement, but it sure gave us a big missing piece, and it kind of set the table for everybody else.
TM: Did Samaras’s actions shift or change the line between risk and safety for other storm chasers after him?
BH: Tim was, in essence, walking the tightrope without a safety net. Now storm chasers, just the people who are out there for fun, it’s kind of a different thing. I think what happened to Tim and Carl and Paul was a big wake up call. And I think it is definitely changing their behavior, at least the sensible people.
TM: The tornado that killed them was the largest tornado ever recorded at that time. Since then, have there been bigger tornadoes?
BH: No, there have not. It remains the largest tornado ever observed, at least that we know about. And it also had possibly some of the fastest wind speeds that have ever been recorded. They made a safe estimate of peak wind speeds that they observed in the El Reno tornado at about 301 miles per hour or so, which is consistent with the fastest wind speeds ever observed on Earth. It was in every sense a superlative tornado, unlike anything anyone has ever seen in modern history.
TM: What was the scope of information you were able to find and dig up about Samaras?
BH: There’s no shortage. I was able to speak several times at length with Tim’s widow, Kathy Samaras. I spoke with his two daughters, and his other biological son. I spoke with his colleagues in TWISTEX, and his colleagues at the Denver Research Institute and Applied Research Associates, which is where he did his day job as an explosives expert. I also had just this wealth of footage of Tim’s own chase footage that was provided to me by Kathy. That’s what chasers do — they film their storm chases, just because they like to have a record. I had hours of footage from Tim’s own deployments from back as far as 1991 up to 2013, where I could practically be sitting next to Tim in the car as he’s trying to intercept the tornado. I can hear what he heard, see what he saw, listen to all the words that he’s saying, and just get a sense for how he behaves beneath the storm.
TM: Through writing the book and your own storm-chasing, what have you learned about chasing storms?
BH: One thing I’ve learned is that it takes a tremendous amount of patience and perseverance to see a tornado. It’s not like you’re just going to go out on a storm day and see one. When I went out storm-chasing for this book, I had to spend about three weeks on the road before I saw my first tornado. I drove through pretty much every state in Tornado Alley, thousands and thousands of miles. For the most part, it’s really tough going, and it’s a bit like a puzzle. You’re trying to predict what hundreds of thousands or millions of cubic miles of atmosphere are going to do a couple of days from now or a day from now or hours from now.
TM: Are you on the look out for any storms in the upcoming weeks?
BH: I’m going to wait for something with a slightly clear signal in Oklahoma or Texas before I go out again. I’m not willing to invest the kind of time and energy and money that I did when I was reporting for this book and we were going out for a week at a time. I’m looking for a little day chase where I can just leave home, maybe see an awesome tornado, and then sleep in my bed that night.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect that the storm that hit Jarrell was an F5 tornado.