NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC - LAST DAYS OF A STORM CHASER
The Monster Storm - FREE Feature Download
For years Tim Samaras pursued tornadoes for the sake of science, always taking great pains to stay safe. Then came the storm of May 2013.
It’s shortly after six in the evening on May 31, 2013. Sitting in the passenger seat of the white Chevrolet Cobalt, the 55-year-old, bookishly handsome storm chaser momentarily gapes at the video camera that the driver of the car is pointing at his face. Then he looks back through the window at the outskirts of El Reno, Oklahoma. The wheat fields are eerily aglow and shudder from a vicious wind. No more than two miles away from the car, twin funnel clouds spiral downward from an immensity of blackness. What we hear in the man’s voice on the videotape is not quite terror. Nor, however, do his words sound clinically factual, in the manner of the scientist he happens to be.
“Oh, my God. This is gonna be a huge one,” he says.
The man frowns. He strokes his chin with almost comical vigor. His name is Tim Samaras, and much of his adult life has been spent in the dangerous company of tornadoes. He’s obsessed with them, to be honest—to the point where his wife, Kathy, would wryly note that her husband “had an affair with Mother Nature.”
The affair had resumed later than usual this spring. “Who ate all the tornadoes?” he complained via Twitter. And on Facebook: “Why can’t there be wedges harmlessly roaming the open plains for us geeky chasers to observe?” But then the month that storm chasers refer to as May Magic arrived—and with it, vertical wind shear produced by southerly winds originating from the Gulf of Mexico lifting and cooling air moving east over the Rocky Mountains, thereby generating thunderstorms and, along the way, lighting up the online discussion groups of happy storm chasers all across America: Severe weather! Severely GREAT weather!
On the morning of May 18 Samaras kissed Kathy goodbye and made sure that his lucky McDonald’s cheeseburger—an actual, if by now somewhat moldy, cheeseburger—was situated correctly on the dashboard of his Cobalt. Then he and two members of his crew—a 45-year-old meteorologist named Carl Young and Samaras’s 24-year-old son, Paul—bolted eastward from their home in Bennett, Colorado, for the midwestern plains known as Tornado Alley, where his other love awaited.
The tornado that very evening in Rozel, Kansas, had been gorgeous, glowing tangerine against the sun while its long rope undulated like a belly dancer—and, thankfully, left Rozel largely unharmed in the process. “Wow, did you see that?” Tim said to a fellow storm chaser, Jeff Pietrowski, who would remember Samaras’s jubilant expression. While logging thousands of miles over the next four days through Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, Samaras and his team, known as TWISTEX, would encounter at least 11 tornadoes. Then, after four nights back home, Samaras returned to the road, in a truck outfitted with a gargantuan high-speed camera for the purpose of conducting lightning research in Kansas—though, as he acknowledged in a Facebook posting, he was “bringing secondary vehicle for a ‘side’ of tornado chasing (I love sides).”
In the May 31 videotape Samaras sits in that secondary vehicle, the Cobalt, a storm chaser on yet another chase. A man in exuberant pursuit of his passion. And yet it could not be more apparent that something is different this time—maybe because the viewer knows something that Samaras does not.
“It’s heading straight for Oklahoma City,” he mutters.
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Robert Draper’s last story for the magazine was an essay on photography. Photographer Carsten Peter went on 13 assignments with Tim Samaras. With additional reporting by Samantha Larson.