As the Discovery Channel hit series "Storm Chasers" twists into its third season this Sunday, there are changes afoot as veteran storm chaser Tim Samaras joins the show with his TWISTEX team. While the action of the series is primarily about the chase and to get as close to tornadoes as possible, there is a good amount of the drama in the competition between team TWISTEX and the already established teams led by Reed Timmer and Sean Casey. To get the lowdown on the new season and the different styles these storm chasers possess in their endeavors, our Jim Halterman talked to Samaras and Timmer earlier this week.
Jim Halterman: Tim, you're the newest member of the show. How did you get involved in "Storm Chasers?"
Tim Samaras: Actually, "Storm Chasers" producer Lisa Bloch has been courting me for the last three years to show up but I couldn't because I had another agreement with another network and so I couldn't join them but she kept after me. Then this year I finished up the agreement and I just kind of let them grab me. It sounded like a lot of fun to participate so I hooked up with them this last year. Between myself and the good Mr. Reed Timmer, it's going to be a far different show from what you've seen in the past. It's going to be lots and lots and lots of tornados. In fact, there is so much footage they had to cut back on the tornado footage to put the story in, which is really good. Discovery has extremely high expectations on the show and I have to agree there is some incredible footage and some great drama that unfolds. Certainly I'm not going to spoil it for ya but it's really going to be quite a show.
JH: Do you agree with that, Reed?
Reed Timmer: I think it's different from last year because last year we missed a lot of tornadoes and made a lot of mistakes and this year we saw a bunch of tornadoes but the good thing is that most of them didn't really hit much, which is the perfect scenario for us to drive into with our vehicles.
JH: Talk to me about your vehicle, Reed. It looks like a tank but is it durable enough to stand up to a tornado?
RT: Oh yeah, it looks like a tank and it has bulletproof armor and a hydraulic system so we can drop the shell all the way to the ground so no wind can get underneath. We drove into four or five tornadoes this year; two strong ones actually with over 150 miles per hour wind in one of them. I thought we were going to roll but I'm glad we didn't.
JH: I saw in one of the clips for this season that your driver's side window blows out all over you. What happened?
RT: We were intercepting a tornado in Nebraska and our worst-case scenario is when a tornado intensifies right on top of us. That day was June 17th and you'll see it on the eighth episode of the season. We have bulletproof glass but we have to manually reach out and lift them up and a rock got caught in the curve in there and I couldn't lift up the bulletproof glass so I just put up the normal window and a tornado intensified right on top of us. Our ears were popping and we were surrounded by a debris cloud and the left side of the vehicle got slammed by this mini vortex inside the tornado and the wind - we measured it at 140 miles per hour wind - it blew the glass into my face and Chris Chittick, the passenger of the vehicle, had his ear was severed a little bit but thankfully the medic here had this skin glue so it was able to be patched but it was pretty intense.
JH: Tim, your vehicle is very different from the others. Can you talk about the differences?
TS: There's a huge difference between Sean Casey's vehicle and Reed's vehicle. Sean's is built from the ground up. He's got actual armor on his vehicle, he has a custom chassis, he has everything custom built. Reed, what he did, was he put a metal shell around his old Tahoe so if I had to choose a vehicle to drive into a tornado, not that I ever will since given the strength of tornadoes I think neither vehicle is safe, but if I had a choice, then Sean Casey's vehicle would be the stronger vehicle. Reed's vehicle was never meant to drive into a tornado but you get the adrenaline flowing and then off he went! He did that a couple of times and I've watched him go into it. Fortunately for him, those tornadoes were extremely weak... so therefore he didn't have to suffer the big consequences because if you were to drive a 2x4 at 130 mph, that has enough kinetic energy to just go right through the car and whoever is sitting there.
JH: I'm told you bring a more even-keeled energy to the show, Tim [Samaras laughs.] Can you tell me what you bring to the show?
TS: The reason is that Reed gets excited and he screams and yells and carries on and he's very, very passionate about it. I guess he got in a couple of fights with his teammates and they went off and joined some another group. Then, Sean Casey had some strong words with Josh [Wurman] and had some strong words with this meteorologist that came along and, well, I run a group of ten people and we just don't have those problems. We go out like a well-oiled machine, we find tornadoes, we make the measurements and that's it. We've seen quite a few tornadoes. We got up close and personal to most of them. Now, Reed on the other hand likes to get right in there. Unfortunately, he chooses to drive into them with a vehicle that may or may not be able to withstand debris going at 140 miles per hour. I tried warning him but he's a pretty strong-willed individual.
JH: It's so hard not to get caught up in your excitement that you display during the show. There must be times that are boring waiting for a storm to appear, right?
RT: What you see in the show is all the exciting moments and we look like maniacs with our adrenaline running out of control but what you don't see are the 14 hours we spend in the car, not seeing anything, eating gas station burritos and that kind of thing. There's a lot of downtime in between the tornadoes.
JH: From where I sit in my safe living room watching the show, the tornadoes are dangerous but they are also quite beautiful. Do you agree?
TS: That's why a lot of us chase them. They're just a beautiful act of nature. They're just amazing. So fleeting in nature and so rare and if you forecast it right and you actually see one develop right in front of you it's a feeling like no other. And it's not just the tornado that's beautiful but the entire cloud structure. That whole thunderstorm is rotating and it looks like the USS Enterprise has landed on the horizon because the whole thunderstorm takes on a very ominous shape and if you're lucky the tornado forms underneath it.
RT: Tornadoes are probably some of the most beautiful natural phenomena on the planet. At the same time, they are extremely dangerous and powerful but there's nothing like being right next to a tornado. It almost looks like it's not from this planet but once you get hooked in your vehicle and experience the power first hand, it's incredible when those 150 mile per hour winds are shaking your vehicle.
JH: Do you remember the first tornado you ever saw?
RT: Yeah, I came down to the University of Oklahoma from Michigan in 1998 to study meteorology and then the first tornado was on October 4, 1998 and it was one of my first storm chasings. I really didn't know what I was doing back then, which is very dangerous, of course. There were actually two tornadoes right next to each other in Northern Oklahoma and one of the first ones I intercepted was an F5 in 1999 and that was the one in south Oklahoma City and we didn't know what we were doing back then either but we just went out and did it cold turkey and nearly cost us our lives. We took refuge under an overpass and were sprayed by mud from the F5 and that was my first experience seeing something like that at a close range.
JH: Is the unpredictable nature of tornadoes part of the rush?
RT: There's so much still that we don't understand about tornadoes and you can make the perfect forecast for tornadoes and it still may not happen. There have been many times when I drove up to Minnesota or Canada and didn't even see a cloud when I expected to see tornadoes. It's frustrating but at the same time it's challenging.
"Storm Chasers" premieres its third season this Sunday at 10:00/9:00c on the Discovery Channel.