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The Man Who Caught the Storm

Tim Samaras was a legendary storm chaser whose work informed what we know about tornadoes. But that knowledge came at a price.
By  |
Head in the Clouds: Samaras dedicated his life to unlocking the secrets of storms. He was in his element when most people would be running for cover. Carsten Peter
Storm chasing is a gamble, and for several weeks now Tim Samaras has played the odds, wagering thousands of dollars in gas, lodging, food, and an obscene number of miles ticking ever higher on the odometer of the family Dodge Caravan. In theory, the objective is simple enough: find a tornado, get in front of it, drop the probes, and move the hell out of the way. In practice, Tim has come to terms with the fact that he is hunting ghosts. He got close in Pratt, Kansas. He got close in Stratford, Texas. But the last few years have been a litany of busts and near misses. Perhaps he was wrong to believe that anything sets him apart from past hunters. Maybe the biggest issue with TOTO (for Totable Tornado Observatory) wasn’t the probe but the foe—unpredictable, untouchable, unbeatable.

Another season is drawing to a close. The date is June 24, 2003, and a storm-killing high-pressure ridge will soon smother the plains with hot and bone-dry weather. The tornadic activity is shifting north, into Canada.

Added to nature’s own encroaching deadline are the financial considerations. This year, he was able to get the National Geographic Society to underwrite his campaign to field the turtles, his name for the probes, but without strong results there likely won’t be a second grant. This is the last day National Geographic Magazine’s embedded photographer, Carsten Peter, can remain on the road with Tim. Peter has already begged his editor for two extensions; the clock has run out.

The small team finalizes the day’s target, and at around 11 that morning, they step outside into a warm, gusting wind out of the south. Slate-bellied clouds give the sunlight straining through a dingy cast. Tim and his partner, Pat Porter, climb into the minivan and head north; the photographer and his guides, Gene and Karen Rhoden, a husband-and-wife storm-chasing team, follow behind in an SUV. They plot a course for the Nebraska-South Dakota border, picking their way along a tangle of state roads and federal highways through the gently undulating, grassy dunes of the Sandhills.

A few miles after crossing the Missouri River into South Dakota, they gas up and prepare for the chase. The harbingers are all around them as they head north: cumulus towers form, white as bleached cotton and smooth as polished marble; they loom like precipitous atolls over a cerulean sea. This means that warm, moisture-suffused air—TNT as far as the chasers are concerned—is convecting toward the upper-level winds that will transform gentle giants into glowering supercells.

By 6 that evening, thunderheads congeal into a line stretching from western Minnesota across the southeastern corner of South Dakota, and into Nebraska. As projected, they grow explosively in this charged environment, erupting into the lower atmosphere like a caldera’s rising ash column.

At 6:16, Tim starts tracking a northeast-bound twister near Woonsocket, South Dakota, a former rail junction in the melon and wheat country east of the James River. They’ll need to drive fast to get ahead of it, but this is a storm that could redeem the season. Roughly a mile out, they behold the prototypical vortex: its funnel is gracefully tapered, its hue ever changing with the angle of the light. When Porter zooms in on the tornado at ground level, the camera reveals staggering violence. Scarcely detectable suction vortices lick out of the earth like tongues of fire and vanish almost as soon as the eye can register what it sees. With the sun behind the plume, the particulate looks as black as coal dust. Judging by the way this tornado chews through windbreak trees like a wood chipper, it is deadly, by its nature unpredictable—an exceedingly nasty specimen for the turtles if they can get ahead of it.

Tim approaches from the east, then swings north onto a dirt road, racing parallel on a path he hopes will eventually bring them into intersection.

“I gotta wait until I get the right angle on it,” he says. The tornado continues to move steadily to the northeast. He just needs to guess where it will cross.

Within half a mile, Tim begins to brake. He glances over his shoulder toward the tornado to his 8 o’clock and brings the minivan to a halt. He steps out onto a rust-red gravel road, wearing jean shorts hemmed at the knees, white socks pulled to his calves, and a sweat-stained Henley t-shirt. Porter rounds the front and resumes filming.

The twister has kept to the fields the entire chase, and this may well be the only road it crosses in its life cycle. But now, with sight lines un-blinkered by the minivan, Tim can detect in its behavior all the signs of a tornado in terminal “rope-out.” This is the phase in its development during which the funnel contracts, and the trunk begins to wander like a crooked vine until its imminent death. The trouble with deploying on a vortex in this end stage is that these are its most erratic moments. There is often a certain amount of stability found in a tornado’s maturity, a kind of straight-ahead churning. A roping tornado, however, is like wildfire—a small change in the wind and it may veer unpredictably. Still, if the twister doesn’t dissipate first, there’s a chance it could pass over Tim’s current position with plenty of room for escape. If this is the day’s last gasp—maybe even the final tornado of the season—he’s sure as hell going to deploy on it.

Tim pulls a turtle from the minivan and hesitates near the tall grass at the edge of the dirt road, the conical shell braced against his abdomen. He’s watching, waiting for the tornado to make the next move. He props the probe on its rim, flips the activating switch on the underside, and carefully lowers the device onto the gravel.

He dives into the minivan to retrieve a second probe, stowed upside down, its point secured by a hole cut into the floorboards—this he places some 20 yards down the road. “All right, let’s go,” he shouts, sprinting toward the minivan. “Let’s go!”

Scarcely detectable suction vortices lick out of the earth like tongues of fire and vanish almost as soon as the eye can register what it sees.

But as soon as they begin to drive away, the funnel fades. Porter can only see the disembodied tantrum of soil and grass whipping at the surface. “Ah, I think it’s dissipating,” he says.
Tim won’t believe it. “Not yet!”

Another 100 yards down the road, Porter can scarcely detect the surface-level rotation.

Tim brakes hard. “I’m going to deploy another probe.”

As he steps out and looks back to the southwest, he sees the funnel receding into the clouds directly above. “Damn luck,” he curses, and presses another probe into the gravel, hoping that what weak vorticity remains will find his instrument. It has been an entirely frustrating intercept. The vortex finally approaches a single passable road, and it’s already roping out.

The weight of yet another near miss settles heavily on Tim’s shoulders. Another season may have just come to an unceremonious end. He knows it is entirely likely that NatGeo will pull its funding. He may have no choice but to forge ahead on his own next year, again without financial support. How much longer can he make this work on a shoestring? The damn thing was so close you could smell the ground-up vegetation, you could hear the roar. Tim begins collecting his turtles, a morose expression on his face.

Gene Rhoden, the NatGeo guide, pipes up, “Tim, I see a golden color on the horizon.”

Tim turns and gazes out to the east at the trailing edge of a thunderstorm catching the mellow light of the setting sun. From this far out he can’t judge the storm’s strength. Tim ducks into the minivan and consults weatherTAP, a streaming radar service, on his salvaged cathode-ray-tube monitor. Suddenly, the fatigue dispels. The storm structure on the screen looks vigorous.
The day isn’t over yet.

Tim throws the mud-daubed minivan into gear and tears off down the road to collect the rest of his probes. Then he hits the straight-shot pavement of Highway 14 and pushes the Caravan’s six cylinders to some 90 miles per hour.

The minivan approaches a low rise and a copse of cottonwoods, beyond which they are driving into the blind. As they pass beyond the trees and onto the table-flat tracts of soybeans and corn, the rain slackens, the sight lines clear, and the occupants of the minivan fall momentarily silent. The rain-soaked windshield is a phantasmagoria of liquid shapes, but there is no mistaking the profile before them.

“Wedge tornado on the ground,” Tim says. “Oh, my God. It’s huge.”

“We gonna deploy on that thing?” asks Porter, his voice betraying more than a little trepidation.

“Damn right.”

Black-Sky Research: Samaras in the path of the 2003 tornado in South Dakota that gave him his breakthrough.

They approach from the west down Highway 14, the main route between Huron and Manchester. The tornado is half a mile to the south of the road and moving steadily northeast, refracting sunlight like a prism. One moment the mile-wide funnel is the color of sand. The next, it is smoke, ash, sod. Tim slows up, pulling into the oncoming lane. His distance narrows to hundreds of yards, but the approach is all wrong. There is the intuitive trimming along the margins of safety, and then there is the bet whose odds are unknown. From here, Tim can’t discern the tornado’s heading or ground speed with any certainty. This is unlike anything he’s ever seen. The tornado before them is the giant of plains legend, the breed a chaser may see once in his life. Even so, he won’t chance a slapdash deployment. “I’m sorry, guys,” Tim says. “This is too close for me. I’m not going in there.”

Tim studies the DeLorme map and reconsiders his options. There is another way, though the risk is still high. He’ll have to leave the sure footing of pavement for a gamble on gravel. He drives 30 feet up the road and takes the next left, leaving the highway. “We’ve got some gridded roads,” he reasons. “I’m going to go north.” He’ll use 424th Avenue, a dirt farm lane, to get ahead.

But before he drives much farther, Tim slows. Through the passenger window, no more than a third of a mile out, he sees the hamlet of Manchester, a huddle of oak, cottonwood, and whitewashed two-story farmhouses surrounded by wheat fields, the seed heads wicking gold in the sun. The minivan rolls to a stop.

“It’s going north,” Porter says. Neither speaks for a moment.

“It’s going to take the town,” Tim replies.

First, a power pole leans and falls. A barn cants over, then its roof sails away. In milliseconds, the rest of the structure follows. A cottonwood, some 100 feet tall, that has given shade to generations is flung to the earth. Now the tornado comes to the closest house. It isn’t the roof that fails first. The entire two stories of it buckle so quickly as to be nearly imperceptible. The steeply pitched roof comes to rest on the ground. Then it is lofted several hundred feet into the sky. They hear none of the crack of splintering lumber, just the toneless, high frequency of white water, omnidirectional and immense. The funnel fills with white drywall, shingles, shredded pieces of insulation, large tree branches. They hang suspended, glittering in the sun. The destruction of Manchester—established with its own post office shortly after South Dakota’s statehood a century before—takes only seconds.

Tim and Porter glimpse the storm’s totality playing out over a span of miles. The clouds are drawn to the core like water to a sink drain, then pulled into the tornado and centrifuged out. There is no time to linger. This road extends in a straight line to the north, but it won’t intersect with the tornado. The storm is still bearing away from them to the northeast. That means Tim has to take the upcoming right, eastbound on 206th Street, and haul ass in front of the wedge over to 425th, the next north-south road. If he leaves enough distance between them and the tornado, he can drop the probe and turn north onto 425th before it’s too late.

In other words, they are about to enter a race they can’t afford to lose. But Tim may never get another chance like this—not this season, maybe not ever. He studies the map. “There’s another crossroads in about a mile. That’s where we’re headed to. We’re gonna be sitting in rain for a little bit.”

Tim hits the gas, and the race of his life begins.

As soon as they enter the rain curtains surrounding the tornado, the tires begin swimming over cake-batter mud. Even by Tim’s standards, this is madness. While he struggles to keep the minivan from sliding into the ditch, the tornado outline that had been so crisp begins to fray in the rain. There’s a corollary of rule No. 1: keep your distance, especially from rain-wrapped tornadoes.

“We’re losing visibility of it. Are you going to deploy in the rain?” Porter asks in disbelief. This is like playing chicken with a train they can’t see. The minivan is fishtailing now; the road is getting worse.

“Yep,” Tim replies.

“You don’t have much time, Tim. Do not get stuck.”

Tim doesn’t respond. The rain is easing up now. The ragged, dusty wall bearing down looks different; it has narrowed, hardened, its outlines growing laminar, almost glassy. At least they can see it again. Tim hits 206th and hooks the right turn east.

They are closing in on the intersection with 425th Avenue, and so is the beast. The road ahead, to Tim’s relief, is paved. They’ll be able to make their escape to the north in a hurry, staking their lives on the proposition that the tornado will continue to bear away to the northeast.

“Here we go,” Tim says.

He can see his deployment site, just before the turn. It is seconds away.


One of the probes he designed, which he called turtles.

He slides to a stop near a dense row of poplar, behind which is a farmhouse neither of them notice. The minivan’s sliding door slams open, and Tim removes a probe.

“Tim.” Porter’s voice takes on urgency as he watches dark shapes translate across the tornado’s face. “We don’t have time. We don’t have time. Seriously.”

They are being tailed by Peter, the NatGeo photographer, whose guides are growing deeply uncomfortable. Tim is so focused on his goal, it seems to Gene Rhoden, that he has blinders on. Floating debris tumbles only a couple of hundred yards out, pieces of trees and the next farmhouse over. The smaller, granulated detritus has already begun to flutter just beyond Porter’s window, like large snowflakes.

Tim is aware only of the tornado and his turtle. He switches on the data recorder and eyes the storm’s trajectory. He plants his probe firmly onto the loose gravel.

Then he’s sprinting, kicking up mud in his wake. He flings himself back into the minivan and floors it.

As they pass the farmstead, they can barely see the house through the rows of lush trees and the minivan’s mud-spattered windows.

“My God, Tim.” Porter exhales. “I hope you got it. Did you get it turned on?”

“Yeah.” The tornado still bears down.

“It is right on Carsten’s butt,” Porter says.

Behind them, they see only the headlights of the Rhodens’ vehicle shining against darkness. Porter watches closely through the rear window. “It just went through that house,” he says.

After gaining some distance, Tim begins braking. The tornado is less than a mile behind them, but they’ve earned some breathing room. “Okay. I want to stop and look at it.” Tim steps out onto the wet asphalt and stares up at the thing he has just outrun, now a long, sinuous trunk boring into the prairie. It leaves the farmstead and crosses the road near the probe, ejecting the trappings of a life into a field of young corn.

“Listen to it,” Porter shouts, awestruck.

Tim plants a new probe he has outfitted with cameras. The tornado swings to the east, into the corn, and seems to hover in place. Meanwhile, Peter, the NatGeo photographer, deploys his own photographic probe, called Tin Man.

Suddenly the tornado curves northwest, toward the caravan. Tim, Porter, Peter, and the Rhodens pile into their vehicles, laughing and hooting, and begin to flee. They speed north for less than a mile before slowing up again. Gradually the vortex constricts, transitioning into what Tim describes as a laminar tube, narrow and translucent, like spider silk lit up by the setting sun. Another metamorphosis, and the tube is replaced by a thin, tattered strand that hangs and twists in the air like frayed cable. Slowly, it all dissolves into blue sky, leaving an amputated skirt of dirt and rain on the ground to whip and gust what remains of the low-level rotation. That, too, then begins to fade. The most incredible tornado Tim has ever witnessed—the true giant for which he has searched more than a decade—has finally breathed its last.

“That probe you put down, before the camera?” Porter says. “That took a direct hit.”

Pink insulation flutters down onto the cornfields. “Good.” Tim stows another probe into its plywood drawer. “I hope it’s on the ground.”

They retrace their steps, scanning the road and ditches ahead for Tim’s turtles, when they come to a freshly destroyed farmstead. Tim parks nearby and begins to pick his way through the wreckage. Debarked trees, blasted with topsoil, are piled atop one another like kindling. He passes a barren concrete slab. A mud-coated basset hound shakes itself off in the road. The Kingsbury County sheriff addresses Tim’s group. “Are you people the storm chasers?”

“Yeah,” Tim says. The air is heavy with the scent of propane. “I don’t want people all over out here.”

“I completely understand. Is everybody all right here?”

“We’ve got a propane tank that’s leaking.”

Far off on the horizon, Porter sees the slender profile of another tornado. “It’s hosin’ again.”

The sheriff, Charlie Smith, squints into the distance and his eyes widen. “Oh, Christ! That’s over by my house.”

“Was anybody home?” Porter asks, turning to the farmstead.

“I don’t know,” Smith says. “I don’t know. I can’t … I hope Harold got out.”

The sheriff goes shuffling off, looking lost. He stops at the edge of the exposed cellar and peers down at the wooden beams, planks, and cinder blocks that have collapsed into it. “Harold?” the sheriff calls.

Tim steps warily onto the rubble and cranes his neck to look into its darkened interstices. No signs of life; no signs of death either. He seems to lose himself as he stares into the shadows of the cellar. Then he remembers his own role. He turns away and begins stalking toward the minivan. “I gotta go south and get my probe.”

He passes a flattened farm truck, the cab shorn flush with the dash panel. Tree-root boluses the size of tractor tires are upturned and naked. He looks back toward the house and sees the funnel a few miles out, deep blue and lancing diagonally at the fields. He hears birdsong, and the mournful bawling of mortally wounded cattle. Tim and Porter step through a mosaic of lumber, all arrayed in the same direction, the wind field’s fingerprint left on the earth. “This looks like F4, F5 damage to me,” Tim says.

The Man Who Caught the Storm is in stores April 3.

They climb into the minivan and drive away, in search of the turtle that Porter saw get hit. For all Tim knows, it has been carried off or smashed by debris.

As they scan the road ahead for signs of the bright cone, they find no trace of it. Back the other way, NatGeo’s Tin Man is wedged in the mud some 500 yards from where it was deployed, its glass ports smashed, the camera inside ruined. After everything, perhaps HITPR hasn’t survived, either, its shape unable to resist the strength of a giant. Perhaps these years have been wasted.

Tim pauses and consults the DeLorme road map—he remembers the probe had been geotagged upon deployment. According to the map, the turtle is in the other direction. He passed it? Tim whips the minivan around and returns to the farmstead. The row of poplar he’d deployed next to is gone, and all that had been green is now the same monochrome mud gray. Harold’s house is the very farmstead he’d deployed next to. He simply had not recognized the area in its current desolation.

“There it is,” Porter yells. “It’s still there!”

The minivan comes skidding to a halt, and Tim strides purposefully toward the turtle, a bewildered look in his eyes as he glances over his shoulder at Porter. The probe is in the path, surrounded by a degree of damage that could only have been caused by the tornado core. History has been made on a dirt road in South Dakota.

Copyright © 2018 by Brantley Hargrove. From The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras, by Brantley Hargrove, to be published by Simon & Schuster Inc. Printed with permission.

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