Go into the storm with tornado chaser Reed Timmer

Reed Timmer
Reed Timmer, who wrote the book ‘Into the Storm,’ has made a career out of getting dangerously closer to tornados; photo courtesy of Reed Timmer

Hail starts to pelt a group of high school students as they throw their caps and gowns in the air, celebrating their graduation day. Suddenly, a warning siren sounds, sending the crowd sprinting for the shelter of the nearby school. Cut scene to a group of swirling twisters flanked by a massive column of debris that seems to take on a life of its own, moving like an animal as it hunts down cars on a highway and tosses a helicopter aside like a toy.

No, this isn’t real life. It’s the trailer for the just-released feature film “Into the Storm,” a thriller based on the gigantic tornados that have been ravaging America’s heartland for years. And while it’s certainly never short on cinematic hyperbole, the movie isn’t all that far from reality, according to real life storm chaser Reed Timmer, even if it does leave out the duller aspects of storm chasing.

“Movies will never be a perfectly accurate depiction of storm chasing because, if they were, it would be a pretty boring movie,” Timmer jokes. “It would just be some guy driving, eating beef jerky, and slamming energy drinks.”

And while Timmer may be privy to the tamer side of tornados, he also knows a thing or two about what they look like from the inside out—he’s one of very few people who have been inside a twister and lived to talk about it. He’s a storm chaser, a meteorologist and weather researcher who often drives more than 50,000 miles a year pursuing the types of storms brought to the silver screen in the new film.

He’s part of the team at TVNweather.com and famously starred on Discovery Channel’s reality series “Storm Chasers.” He followed the cancellation of the show by starring in the web series “Tornado Chasers,” and even penned a memoir about his experiences inside of storms (also titled “Into the Storm“).

Above all, he’s become something of a poster child for storm chasers, an ever-growing clan of researchers, news reporters, hobbyists, and locals wielding GoPro cameras who do something not many people are willing to do: drive straight toward a tornado. In fact, it’s the videos and research produced by this “modern era” of storm chasing that made “Into the Storm” so much more accurate than the last big storm-chasing blockbuster, “Twister.”

“‘Twister’ was made almost 20 years ago,” Timmer says. “The technology wasn’t quite there yet to simulate a tornado—‘Twister’ focused more on the character development of the storm chaser community, which is what made that movie so amazing. I was surprised by how accurate the special effects were in ‘Into the Storm.’ I spoke to the director, and he said they watched hundreds and hundreds of tornado videos online.”

Reed Timmer
Reed Timmer says storm chasing’s popularity is on the rise thanks to viral videos of tornados taken by amateurs and professionals alike. Photo courtesy of Reed Timmer

Creating a viral video is a major motivator for many budding storm chasers, so much so that the increase in amateur hobbyists is starting to concern—and even annoy—the researchers who have been playing the tornado game for years.

“It’s wide streaming and there are thousands of storm chasers out there. There’s even a lot more armored vehicles now, and I’m sure there’s more to come, which is kind of scary since it’s obviously very dangerous when people try to intercept tornadoes. Sometimes there’s a long line of storm chasers on the road, and I’ll get stuck behind them,” says Timmer, who is quick to remember that he, too, was a novice at one point: “Some storm chasers will say, ‘Oh there’s too many chasers out there, and it’s destroying our hobby,’ but you can also look at the positive of the situation—with so many eyes under a storm, it’s very difficult for a tornado to go unseen and more important, unreported.”

Timmer follows storms with the tenacity and fervor of a football fanatic preparing for the fantasy draft. He’s constantly monitoring computer model forecasts, looking for the right ingredients for a storm: high wind speeds, instability, and heat and moisture at low levels with cold air above. “You find target areas and sometimes they can be really far away,” he explains. “Sometimes we’ll chase in Canada, and you have to drive all the way from Oklahoma to Alberta, which is a pretty long drive. Sometimes you go that far and not a single storm develops. You just can’t let that get to you. You get used to failure, because it’s so fulfilling when you actually get to see one.”

Reed Timmer
After a few close calls, Reed Timmer says he prefers to stay just outside a tornado. Photo courtesy of Reed Timmer

There is a certain allure to something so shrouded in danger, but Timmer knows more than anyone that danger can sometimes walk hand-in-hand with tragedy. In the spring of 2013, Oklahoma experienced a slew of deadly storm systems just days apart from one another. A larger storm dropped a series of eight tornados down across Oklahoma’s middle near El Reno, traveling more than 16 miles, while another just days before stretched two miles wide and claimed 23 lives in the nearby suburbs of Moore. The storms left the region completely devastated, and took the lives of three notable figures in the storm chasing community: meteorologist Carl Young, Timmer’s “Storm Chasers” costar Tim Sarmaras, and Sarmaras’ 24-year-old son, Paul.

“Any loss of life is horrible,” says Timmer, “But I’m kind of an optimist, I guess. There’s never been a situation where I thought, ‘I’m not going to make it.’ Overall, only three people in the history of storm chasing have ever lost their lives directly due to the storm. Sadly, they were pioneers in our field and friends of mine, but overall it’s an extremely safe hobby and line of work.”

But while storm chasing may be safe, living in the path of a twister is not, which is a large part of the reason Timmer continues to drive his custom-armored vehicle, the Dominator, into some of the windiest places in the world: to gather information that will eventually safe civilian lives.

“The biggest mystery of tornados is just how strong the wind speeds are near the ground,” Timmer says, going on to explain that some computer models have suggested that wind speeds in certain conditions could potentially be reaching the speed of sound. “We don’t know that for sure, though, because wind speed data collected near the ground is extremely scarce—with our vehicles and instrumentation, we’re launching probes into the tornado trying to measure the wind speeds and make that data available to all researchers.”

The goal is to be able to provide information about strong storms to structural engineers so that they can better design homes and make buildings and bridges more reliable so that they can survive tornados. More directly, Timmer hopes to prevent deaths by unifying the efforts of everyone on the ground by relaying storm information to news media and emergency managers. “The key in the future is for everyone to work together to not only prevent the loss of life but also help people recovery immediately from the devastation.”

So, what does it look like inside of a tornado?

“In the movie ‘Twister,’ they make it seem like it’s this solid tube where you look up and see lightening and everything—it’s not anything like that,” Timmer says. “When you’re inside it, it’s pure chaos. It’s debris and dirt and pressure. It gets really dark and your ears pop—our radar engineer, who was in the back seat when we were inside a tornado, actually ruptured his eardrums. Our camera guy looked at him and said, ‘Your ears are bleeding!’ and he had a stream of blood coming out his ear from the intense pressure of the tornado. It’s not a pleasant experience.”

These days, Timmer stays about 50 feet outside the storm—close enough to do his research without the ear-popping experience—but he’s not done going to extremes just yet. “I wish I could extend my ranger further and storm chase in Bangladesh, where they get some of the biggest tornados in the world just south of Mount Everest. They have massive storms no one’s ever really chased.”

Now that sounds like a movie we’d pay to see.

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