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A tornado barrels down a road towards a tornado chaser.

A tornado barrels down a road toward tornado chaser Tim Samaras.

Photograph by Carsten Peter, National Geographic

Robert Draper.

Photograph by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic

Victoria Pope

National Geographic

Published October 16, 2013

Veteran journalist Robert Draper sat down recently to discuss his November cover story in National Geographic magazine, "The Monster Storm," with editor Victoria Pope.

The November cover story is a profile of Tim Samaras and a profile of the El Reno, Oklahoma, tornado at the same time. How did you see the relationship between the two?

Well, it wasn't the straightforwardly scientific relationship that one might expect. Without question Samaras was deeply interested in tornadic research, particularly insofar as gathering data with his probes might result in quicker response times to tornadoes, thus saving lives.

But even the most cautious and data driven of storm chasers aren't just driven by clinical fascination. As anyone who's been in frequent proximity with supercells—including magazine Editor in Chief Chris Johns—can attest, the experience is elementally staggering. The experts I interviewed became children before my eyes as they described what it's like. Samaras, to his credit, made no bones about his fixation. The DVDs he and his son produced about tornadoes were entitled Driven by Passion.

This story introduced you to the American storm-chasing community—a tight-knit, single-minded subculture. How did you get the storm chasers to trust you?

Sources talk to journalists who harbor a sincere curiosity about just what it is that motivates the people they're interviewing. That wasn't hard for me at all with respect to storm chasers, who constitute a curious and largely male tribe of obsessive, insatiable romancers of natural monstrosities.

But I think their willingness to talk to me was overwhelmingly a measure of their respect and affection for Tim Samaras and their desire that his story be told.

How did Tim Samaras fit into the storm-chasing world?

In that community, Samaras was looked at as first among equals—first as co-founder of the annual storm-chasing confab ChaserCon, then as the inventor who entered the Guinness World Records book for recording the lowest-ever pressure drop of a tornado, and finally as a TV star on the Discovery Channel.

But I think what also tightened their bond was the fact that Samaras never viewed himself as being above the rest. Indeed, he felt a kinship to the amateurs, given that Samaras himself never went to college and therefore didn't come to the scene with gold-embossed academic credentials. In the video snippets of him that accompany my story on the website, you can hear this common-man viewpoint in Samaras's voice, just as you could once read it in his Facebook posts and Tweets. Tim Samaras loved tornadoes, but he also loved people, and he truly enjoyed the communal nature attendant to storm chasing.

Samaras had his own storm-chasing team, TWISTEX. What's happened to its members since the tragic events of May 31?

They remain in contact and would like to keep TWISTEX operations going. But they face a great deal of uncertainty. First, they're sensitized to the feelings of Tim Samaras's family and don't want to overstep while emotions are still raw. Second, Samaras took with him a vastness of institutional knowledge, not to mention one-of-a-kind ingenuity, that the TWISTEX team will be at pains to replace. And third, they lost in Samaras the most articulate spokesperson for their pursuits—which is to say, their best fund-raiser. Stay tuned.

Were you surprised when the El Reno tornado was downgraded to an EF3-level storm? That's quite mundane for a storm you describe in your story as "magisterial and brutish."

Yes and no. The Enhanced Fujita system measures, at bottom, human damage, and being that this tornado primarily cut through rural areas, casualties were, thankfully, minimal. But by any other scientific measure, this tornado was of monumental scale. To my mind, it's like downgrading the Great White Whale in Melville's Moby Dick to the status of Fairly Sizable Light-Tinted Mammal.

You reported your story in midsummer. Have any new details surrounding the final hours of Samaras, his son Paul, and Carl Young emerged since then?

Those few details that have recently emerged still don't tell us that much. For example, we now know that the TWISTEX car being driven by Carl Young was in reverse at the time of collision, and one could infer from this fact that the team was desperately trying to escape from the path of the tornado the moment it became visible to them. That's not surprising to me. The TWISTEX team had definitely set out to deploy their probes, but I'm convinced they had no desire to court danger. They simply couldn't see that, beneath the rain wrapping, danger was charging toward them.

If you were still reporting the story, what questions would you be chasing after now?

Chiefly, I'd want to know things that are in fact unknowable—among them, what if any discussions the three storm chasers had about the pros and cons of deploying probes using the lightweight Cobalt [vehicle]. I'm convinced that a shortage of funds compelled Samaras to save on gasoline costs by leaving his storm-chasing truck behind and riding in the smaller car instead. And it's worth pointing out that a number of other storm chasers opt for lighter vehicles for the same reason. But it wasn't like Samaras to deploy his probes—and thus intrude directly into a tornado's path—from the flimsier confines of the Cobalt. I would bet that this was not an easy call for them. Considering the ferocity of the tornado at El Reno, perhaps the bigger truck wouldn't have made a difference anyway. We'll never know.

16 comments
Chris Novy
Chris Novy

There was likely no surviving a direct strike from the El Reno, OK tornado whether in a Chevy Cobolt or a reinforced TIV.  Tim was one of the few people doing ACTUAL research on tornadoes --not pretend research for a TV show or to impress other chasers.  He was also one of the nicest people you could ever meet.  His contribution to Discovery's Storm Chasers helped save that show from being a total piece of reality garbage.  Hopefully his work will inspire others to follow in his footsteps in terms of research and professional conduct and also serve as a warning to the thrill-seekers out there that tornadoes are not all fun and games --despite what people see on TV.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

I'm not sure why so many people are praising this man. He was a storm chaser for no other reason than he was a thrill-seeker and adrenaline junkie. Some people skydive, others scuba dive or hang-glide - Tim Samaras chased storms for much the same reason.

 If Tim Samaras was a professional meteorologist building a career and a future for his family then his actions would be understandable, but Tim Samaras was not a professional. The fact some posters say he was 'careful' is nonsense and irrelevant, as is NG referring to him as a 'scientist' which should only be applied to professionals.

For any man to place his wife and children in the position of unnecessarily losing their husband and father for no other reason than self-interest seems a little irresponsible to me.

Dipankar Mondal
Dipankar Mondal

Thank you Tim for your effort to make this world safer.

Cheryl Rowe
Cheryl Rowe

Having sat out this tornado in a shelter about twelve miles away, and at one point, in the direct path, I know first-hand from the harried commentary of the local news and weather media how the totally non-typical directional changes of this tornado, along with the outlying satellite tornados which dropped into a massive area surrounding the central rotation made it almost impossible to judge a safe direction of escape.  With the other storms in the area also dropping funnels and all the action occurring at the same time, it was one of the most dangerous situations I have ever seen in over half a century of living in "tornado alley".  The only surprise to this story is that the loss of life and property wasn't greater.  Samaras wasn't a local adrenline seeker; he was probably the most experienced and cautious person in his field.  This should serve as a warning to all the amateurs who clog the roads every time a tornado is spotted.  Their presence is not only a danger to those seeking to escape the storm or respond to emergencies caused by it, but can result in their losing their own lives. Leaving the shelter to see the huge amount of damage done to our property and neighborhood that spread for miles along a damage path from a dangling satellite funnel which never even touched ground really brought home the power of these storms.

Bob Roberts
Bob Roberts

I don't know how you can call it a tragedy.  Reckless and stupid more like it. You play around enough sooner or later your going to get burned. Whats tragic is now his family has to suffer because of his recklessness.  Thats tragic.

Dylan Boyer
Dylan Boyer

It must be hard to lose someone to something that is their passion. May God be with Tim Samaras' family. R.I.P

Eric Mccall
Eric Mccall

@Andrew Booth seeing how you have no clue what Tim did for the world of research into storms you should take time to look into his life.he was not in it for the thrill his data is one of the main reason you have the warning time for tornadoes that we have today.he was more careful than anyone in the field the storm that took his life was a freak that caught the most seasoned chaser by surprise.so before you label someone at least look into what they were about first.  

David Eye
David Eye

@Andrew Booth        "Some people skydive, others scuba dive or hang-glide"  

or fly bi-planes, like the one in your avatar? I mean there is really no reason to fly in old dangerous planes anymore other than thrill seeking right?

By the way, is it not possible that someone who is into, say, scuba diving, might actually be very fascinated / interested in exploring and learning more about the undersea environment ? or someone who is into hang gliding might be really interest in the physics of flying? ..or should we just write them all off as thrill seeking, know nothing idiots? 

Angi Gray
Angi Gray

@Andrew Booth Perhaps you should do some research. Samaras invented systems to measure tornadic activity. He collected said data and analyzed it. He also shared that data with "professional" meteorologists who are too scared to do the actual inventing and collecting. He did all of this to give YOU a better chance at survival. That was his whole aim, was to lengthen warning times.

I am not sure what your definition of "professional" is, but mine does not involve degrees, it involves working in the field in question.

Cheyenne Valdez
Cheyenne Valdez

@Bob Roberts It's tragedy, sure they did this for a while, but Tim was always careful. Always. They didn't know that the tornado changed course and it intercepted them. They didn't have a chance to get out of the way, but they tried. That'd be like saying the death of a police officer isn't a tragedy because they go out in the field everyday and they were being reckless with their decisions. This was an unfortunate day for every storm chaser. 

chunchen liu
chunchen liu

but the spirit for adventure of him should be respected, we can not change other's mind, the only thing we might do is to suggest they should be more careful when they take such adventures.

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