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The Man Who Caught the Storm

The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras



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About The Book

The saga of the greatest tornado chaser who ever lived: a tale of obsession and daring and an extraordinary account of humanity’s high-stakes race to understand nature’s fiercest phenomenon from Brantley Hargrove, “one of today’s great science writers” (The Washington Post).

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the tornado was one of the last true mysteries of the modern world. It was a monster that ravaged the American heartland a thousand times each year, yet science’s every effort to divine its inner workings had ended in failure. Researchers all but gave up, until the arrival of an outsider.

In a field of PhDs, Tim Samaras didn’t attend a day of college in his life. He chased storms with brilliant tools of his own invention and pushed closer to the tornado than anyone else ever dared. When he achieved what meteorologists had deemed impossible, it was as if he had snatched the fire of the gods. Yet even as he transformed the field, Samaras kept on pushing. As his ambitions grew, so did the risks. And when he finally met his match—in a faceoff against the largest tornado ever recorded—it upended everything he thought he knew.

Brantley Hargrove delivers a “cinematically thrilling and scientifically wonky” (Outside) tale, chronicling the life of Tim Samaras in all its triumph and tragedy. Hargrove takes readers inside the thrill of the chase, the captivating science of tornadoes, and the remarkable character of a man who walked the line between life and death in pursuit of knowledge. The Man Who Caught the Storm is an “adrenaline rush of a tornado chase…Readers from all across the spectrum will enjoy this” (Library Journal, starred review) unforgettable exploration of obsession and the extremes of the natural world.


The Man Who Caught the Storm PROLOGUE
MAY 27, 1997

THE FIRE DEPARTMENT’S siren sounded over Jarrell, Texas, just after 3:30 p.m.—a shrill, oscillating note, like an air-raid alarm, swelling and fading and swelling again. It filled every street and pressed in through the windows of every house in the little Czech farming town some forty-five minutes north of Austin. The siren was only ever used to call volunteers to the station, but anyone who had been paying attention that afternoon knew this time was different. They had ten minutes, maybe twelve at the outside.

The TV meteorologists were already tracking the tornado near Prairie Dell, four miles to the north of Jarrell. It writhed like a coach-whip snake at first, its thin form roping liquidly over prime farmland, where the Hill Country gives way to Blackland Prairie. For a time it seemed to track neither north nor south, but to trace a languid orbit in place.

Then came the shift.

The graceful ribbon was suddenly gone, replaced by this other thing—an inchoate, gray miasma, not so much a tornado as a wall of smoke, leaching up out of the earth. The twister was on the move now, bearing southwest on a collision course with Jarrell.

When it finally appeared on the northern horizon at about 3:40 p.m., it was a sight townspeople would resummon in their dreams for years to come. Bristling with debris and blackened with rich soil scoured from the fields, it looked ancient and immutable, its sooty wings spread wide. What it looked like was the end of the world.

The tornado was as wide as thirteen football fields laid end to end. Little Jarrell could have disappeared inside it, swallowed and gone. But the town that day was largely spared. The darkness passed to the west, away from the most densely populated parts of town. The trouble was, there were still people in its path, and more than usual on a Tuesday afternoon. School had let out for summer on the Friday before.

Double Creek Estates, a collection of modest single-story, wood-frame-and-brick starter homes, was huddled in the lowlands just northwest of downtown. Like most everywhere else in Texas, the houses didn’t have basements; the water table was too high, and the limestone bedrock too shallow. With no choice but to shelter aboveground, the residents did as they had always been instructed: they sought out hallways, bathtubs, closets. They gathered their children into these spaces and listened to the wind, then the breaking glass, the groaning wood, and finally the raw sound of it, a deafening, toneless static, until the roofs and the walls surrounding them fell away.

To say that the neighborhood was flattened would be to imply that there were ruins left to pick through in search of survivors. For National Weather Service surveyors cataloging the indexes of destruction, the tornado was notable for how few injuries it produced: one serious and ten minor along the periphery of the path. All else was fatality. Aboveground, inside the core, the odds of survival were nearly zero. The Hernandez family was the outlier—they lived only because Gabriel and his wife had insisted on carving a belowground shelter out of the limestone by hand.

Their home and some thirty others had not simply been razed; the foundations had been scraped clean, in some cases even of plumbing. The lawns surrounding them weren’t littered with debris. The remainder of the structures—the frame, brick, drywall—had been “granulated,” to quote one surveyor, and strewn over long distances downwind.

Eventually the clouds burned away, and the sun shone again. The carcasses of hundreds of cattle, some of them with the hide stripped clean of every follicle, lay mud-plastered in barren fields that were recently green. They were strewn through the woods, where even some of the oldest oaks had been pulled up, root and trunk. Many of the trees that still stood were swaddled in stiff sheet metal blown from nearby buildings and had been denuded and nubbed off at the top, like totem poles. The countryside reeked with decay, as if a suppurating wound had been opened on the land itself. And in a sense, one had.

The Jarrell twister produced what is to this day regarded as the most extreme damage researchers have ever encountered. More than five hundred feet of asphalt had been peeled away from the county roads where the tornado crossed, exposing the crushed-stone bedding beneath. Eighteen inches of topsoil had been suctioned from the lush fields of wheat and cotton, transforming them into vast muddy scars pooled with stagnant water. The people that saw these phenomena understandably wondered how the wind could do such things.

A couple of weeks later, once the debris had been cleared away, and the remains had been recovered as thoroughly as could be expected, my family and I drove slowly among the naked foundations. We lived not far from Jarrell, and during a recent summer, when I was fourteen or so, I had stocked shelves in the town’s general store. As the blocks of concrete and tracts of bare soil slipped past, I could have believed that no one had ever lived in Double Creek. For all I knew, this could have been a brand-new development, with fresh slabs still waiting for the frames and anchor bolts.

But the truth was, they had contained lives, and their erasure was the brutal consequence of prolonged exposure to nightmarish winds. I learned later that the tornado had crawled through Double Creek at around ten miles per hour, and sometimes much less. Given its size, that meant some residents were subjected to sustained winds of more than two hundred miles per hour for minutes on end. The tornado became a grinder awash in shards of wood and metal and God knows what else. If the wind didn’t kill you, the things it carried would.

In that kind of hell, what can stand? Driving through, where I noted a stray tennis shoe still dangling from a barbwire fence, I couldn’t help but wonder, Why Double Creek? In the hundreds of square miles of quiet country between Waco and Austin, in all that open farm- and ranchland where the storm could have spent its fury in harmless isolation, it found this tiny neighborhood—probably less than a mile square in size—and swept it from the world. Around here, the loss felt immeasurable. Entire families were simply gone, including every member of the Igo clan. The fifteen-year-old twin Igo boys, John and Paul, had worked at the same general store as me, where we’d overlapped just once.

Yet outside my little corner of Texas, the missing and the dead were one part of a much larger story. In cold statistical terms, the twenty-seven killed were but a portion of the yearly national toll. On average, tornadoes will claim eighty lives annually, a figure convulsed by significant variance; in 2011, for example, 316 died in a single day. The loss that year was staggering; it wasn’t just the people who died but the economic damage the storms incurred: some $28 billion in cost between April and May. In the United States, the damage caused by tornadoes has outstripped that of fires, earthquakes, and floods and is nearly on par with that from hurricanes. The most violent type—the EF4s and EF5s—are exceedingly rare, accounting for roughly one to two percent of all tornadoes. A storm chaser may never see an EF5 in his lifetime. Yet despite their infrequency, some seventy percent of tornado fatalities are attributable to the deadliest breed. The scale of these disasters is nearly beyond accounting.

An EF5 flattened a swath of Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011. The trail of destruction it left behind was some six miles long and up to eighteen hundred yards wide. With 158 dead, and thousands of homes and buildings severely damaged or destroyed, the town called to mind images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombs. Streets were unrecognizable to residents who had lived on them for years. Joplin, as they had known it, no longer existed.

But the true testament to the tornado’s power can’t be observed from a helicopter circling high above. It’s on the micro level, in the little scenes and dispositions of objects that seem to defy explanation and the laws of physics. Researchers refer to these as “incredible phenomena.” In Joplin, damage surveyors found a truck that had been wrapped around a tree, the front bumper in contact with the rear. Cardboard had imbedded into the siding of the high school. A shard of wood had impaled a concrete parking curb. Steel manhole covers had simply disappeared.

The month before Joplin, the small town of Smithville, Mississippi, was largely destroyed by an EF5. A Ford Explorer was lofted for half a mile before smashing into the top of the town’s 130-foot-tall water tower. The vehicle then tumbled another quarter mile before finally coming to rest. The same day, in Tuscaloosa, another tornado sheared steel trusses from the train trestle over Hurricane Creek Canyon. One of the trusses, weighing about thirty-four tons, was blown one hundred feet uphill. Farther along the tornado’s path, at a coal yard, a thirty-six-ton railcar was lifted from its tracks and hurled nearly four hundred feet. Eyewitnesses say it didn’t tumble, it flew. On May 20, 2013, an EF5 chewed through the outlying suburbs of Oklahoma City, killing twenty-four. In one subdivision, two brick houses, sitting some ten feet apart, had been pierced by the same two-by-six board. It passed clean through the first before lodging in an interior wall in the second.

Yet for all these brute displays of unfathomable strength, there are just as many stories surrounding the wind’s incongruous tenderness. The same day SUVs and railcars were airborne, a restaurant in Ringgold, Georgia, called Chow Time, was damaged beyond repair. The ceiling was caved in, the walls collapsed, but at the center of it all sat a cake fit to be served. Its frail glass container hadn’t even cracked; every last swirl of frosting was pristine. In Joplin, a child’s play set, made of nothing sturdier than hard plastic, survived unscathed. Surrounded on all sides by uprooted trees and pulverized homes, it was as though it alone had been spared.

With seasonal regularity, the continental United States is scored with the tracks of tornadoes, from the Deep South up to the High Plains. Most last only seconds, a fleeting discontinuity swiftly rectified. But a vanishing few sink lasting roots into the storms that spawn them, becoming so enormous, and so powerful, that they sustain themselves for hours over dozens of ruinous miles. It’s one of the most awesome expressions of force in the natural world, and also one of its most unpredictable.

Tornado warnings issued by the National Weather Service have a false-alarm rate of roughly seventy percent. When they are accurate, the average lead time between warning and impact is around fourteen minutes. The people of Joplin had seventeen minutes. On September 20, 2000, Xenia, Ohio, received no warning at all. The weather service had issued a severe-thunderstorm warning, but its radar failed to detect the signature of the coming tornado. By the time the F4 arrived, it had knocked out power to four of Xenia’s five sirens. One man was killed when a tree crushed his car, and more than one hundred others were injured. In 2016, the Storm Prediction Center, the government’s finest severe-weather forecasting unit, issued a morning outlook that indicated a two percent probability of tornadoes across northern Missouri, at around lunchtime. By that afternoon, it became clear its forecast had missed the signal in the noise: one of the largest August tornado outbreaks ever recorded was under way in Indiana and Ohio.

The tornado’s appearance each year is inextricable from human memory in North America and across the earth’s temperate climates. The Arikara called it the Black Wind. To others it was Whirlwind Woman, the bringer of life-giving rain and death, her arrival as inevitable as the seasons. The Cheyenne and Arapaho believed the caterpillar created the whirlwind, and entomologists know today that they often hatch when the barometric pressure falls before a storm. The Plains tribes grasped something essential about the correlation, though the signs to them were supernatural.

Those who’ve been caught by surprise couldn’t be faulted for concluding that, even with all our Doppler radar arrays and rawinsonde weather balloons, meteorology hasn’t demystified tornadoes one bit. We now live in an era when the Mars Pathfinder rover has touched down on the Red Planet. The human genome has been mapped. Physicists use particle accelerators to study the subatomic fundament of all matter. But for all our technological achievement, twisters still have the power to confound even the most advanced civilization the planet has ever known. When they come, the best any of us can do is get out of the way or place layers of thick steel and reinforced concrete between our bodies and the wind.

We still can’t predict which storms will give rise to killer twisters, nor do we fully understand the process by which weak tornadoes become strong. Until recently, the core of a tornado remained as remote and untouchable as the surface of the sun. Researchers still dream of the day when forecasters have the tools to issue thirty-minute advance notifications—warnings not only of imminent tornado formation, but of potential intensity. Such notice could give residents in towns such as Jarrell the time to shelter in place, to find adequate protection, or to escape. But before that day comes, scientists must first answer questions about the nature of the vortex so fundamental they could be posed by a layman: Why do some storms produce tornadoes and others do not? What sequence of events gives birth to the biggest, long-track EF5s? Can we identify the signs before it’s too late?

There is a future in which there are answers to these questions and we are given more than fourteen minutes between the warning and the darkness at the door.

Humans have always invented monsters to explain the inexplicable. In Romania, where tornadoes are infrequent but have been known to occur, folk mythology tells of the balaur, or dragon. As the myth goes, this creature soars high above, trailing a long, lashing tail. Its roar is deafening. Its breath turns the water in the clouds to ice. It carries people into the sky. And in the end, the dragon leaves nothing but ruin in its wake.

Hundreds of years ago, the Romanian villagers couldn’t explain what had happened to them, so they invented a story. The same happened nearly everywhere else tornadoes touched down. The world has changed enormously since these stories were first uttered, but not every myth has faded.

The tornado is one of the only real dragons the modern world has left. And the only way to dispel the frightening unknown is for someone to steal away with its secrets. If we are to glimpse what lies at the heart of one of the planet’s greatest mysteries, someone must first journey to a place few have witnessed and live to tell about. The task requires invention, a tolerance for danger, and an unusual breed of talented tinkerer.

We know this because there once was such a man.

He got closer than anyone before or since, committing his life with fanatical devotion to the chase and a search for answers. He wasn’t the decorated expert you’d expect. He wasn’t an eminent scientist with a fine academic pedigree or the resources of a major research institute. For the most part, he was just a regular guy—with a dream, an uncommon set of skills, and an insatiable appetite for tracking down extreme storms. This man set out on a mission he’d been told was highly inadvisable, if not completely suicidal. To the shock of the scientific community, he pulled it off. He swept the shroud aside, if only briefly, and showed us all something we’d never before seen—the heart of the tornado.

By proving that the core was not untouchable after all, he pushed the field forward. Then, he pushed too far. He spent decades searching for the ultimate storm. And when he found the one, it upended everything he thought he knew. This is the story of a man who caught what he was chasing. He surpassed his peers, seeming to transcend science with his ability to read the vortex—until the object of his fascination finally turned. It swept down from the sky, carried him up, and took his life.

About The Author

Photograph by Catherine Downes

Brantley Hargrove is a journalist who has written for WiredPopular Mechanics, and Texas Monthly. He’s gone inside the effort to reverse-engineer supertornadoes using supercomputers and has chased violent storms from the Great Plains down to the Texas coast. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Renee, and their two cats. The Man Who Caught the Storm is his first book.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 2, 2019)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476796109

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Raves and Reviews

“In the best biographies of the obsessive dead, like those written by Jon Krakauer, the writer begins to chase whatever his subject, now passed on, has spent his life pursuing. Hargrove is no different. … Hargrove’s shared passion allows him incredible access to Tim’s world. … The Man Who Caught the Storm manages to be both cinematically thrilling and scientifically wonky.”

“Hargrove puts you there and you can’t get out. Many a novel is not written this memorably. … He invents a kind of writing as tempestuous, fearful, poetic, and concrete as his subject … a tempestuous, true tale of a legendary storm-chaser. … In Brantley Hargrove, a writer to watch, the life of Tim Samaras has gotten a storyteller worthy of all its curious, brilliant, devastating grandeur.”
Philadelphia Inquirer

“With The Man Who Caught the Storm, Brantley Hargrove has given us a thrilling tale of Promethean defiance, one that in our age of superstorms and climate change has much currency today. Pairing rich reporting with an exquisite sense of pacing, Hargrove has chased down the king of the chasers. Here is an instant classic of Americana—a story of tragedy, invention, lore, science, and a most original kind of genius who was irresistibly drawn to one of nature's most awesome and violent mysteries.”
Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers and In the Kingdom of Ice

“Hargrove is one today’s great science writers. His book delivers … He takes the reader not only on a journey through the remarkable life of engineer-explorer Samaras, but also through the beautifully desolate roads of the Plains while on the chase. … The book will surely enthrall … So, sit back and take a journey through America’s heartland with one of chasing’s legends.”
Washington Post

“Hargrove weaves a tale with just enough background, just enough science and just enough adventure … a narrative that often reads like a thriller.”
Wall Street Journal

“This is what man versus nature is all about. A powerful, vivid, and ultimately heartbreaking investigation into the life of one very brave storm chaser. Brantley Hargrove has given us a masterful biography with all the best attributes of a novel.”
Skip Hollandsworth, author of The Midnight Assassin

“A dangerous journey into the heart of tornadoes … The Man Who Caught the Storm recounts the obsessions and the unlikely achievements of Samaras while also detailing the history.”
The New York Times

“Hargrove makes the reader feel the icy hailstones which precede the blast of wind and smell the lingering ozone. More importantly, he unravels the tragic tale of a man who, like Icarus, exceeded the boundaries of nature.”
Lincoln Journal Star

“An epic … Tim Samaras is one of the most revered storm chasers in history, and through his character and actions, he carved out a legendary life that may never be matched in our world. … Hargrove’s intense and intimate research into Tim Samaras’ life is on full display in this book, and poring through Tim’s story was both enchanting and humbling. … This book perfectly captures chasing’s moments. … Prepare to be transported to the Plains and the great tornado hunt through this engaging read.”
U.S. Tornadoes

“A hell of a story, and Hargrove has gotten as close as anyone could hope to its core ... conveyed in prose that flirts with poetry without ever turning purple. … The book also offers a streamlined primer in tornado science, historical and in the making. But it’s the moments when monsters coalesce from the ether that both Hargrove and Samaras live for.”
Texas Observer

The Man Who Caught the Storm is a stunner … Brantley Hargrove has done a masterful job … Hargrove captures the arc of Samaras’s life and its many dimensions—tinkerer, sky watcher, family man—with eloquence and respect. Hargrove also brings to a general audience the larger, complex world of research-oriented storm chasing more deftly than any other book I’ve read. … Hargrove’s prose is rich and varied, and he specializes in gem-like descriptions … Five stars out of five.”
Weather Underground

“This gripping book takes you inside Samaras’ life and tragic death, relying on hours of interviews with friends and family and chase footage to offer an incredible look at his perilous calling.”
Popular Science

“Maybe you’ve noticed the news: the climate is angry, and we can look forward to ever more extreme storms. In his fast-moving, page-turning book, The Man Who Caught the Storm, Brantley Hargrove captures an urgent moment in human history: a time when we’re in a race not only to understand nature’s increasingly raw power, but also to survive it.”
Susan Casey, author of Voices in the Ocean

“Insanely gripping, impossible to put down. This book takes you inside the whirling core of monster tornadoes, and the life of a maverick storm researcher who pushed his luck too far.”
—Richard Grant, author of Dispatches from Pluto

“An exemplar of narrative nonfiction. … [Hargrove] is a deft writer who uses evocative prose to provide readers the adrenaline rush of a tornado chase. … Readers from all across the spectrum will enjoy this title.”
Library Journal, Starred Review

“Hargrove does a marvelous job mixing heady science with an engrossing and personal narrative. Nirvana for weather fanatics, the storytelling will appeal to a broad audience, and is infused with the soul of a loving family man on a mission to achieve his dreams, dancing with nature's devil while trying to make the world a safer place.”
Shelf Awareness

“Enthralling … An adroit biography of a thrill-seeking storm chaser … Hargrove refreshingly contributes quality information on what intrigues and motivates storm chasers, their unique camaraderie, and the evolution of the sophisticated tracking equipment in use today.”
Kirkus Reviews

“A vivid, beautifully written, and incredibly reported page-turning tale of a man’s obsession with one of the most powerful forces in nature.”
Cowboys and Indians Magazine

“The story of an unlikely legend … A uniquely American tale of adventure, diving into the circumstances and makeup that lead a man to chase what he should be running from.”

“Hargrove’s writing made my breath stop short. The book’s ending had me in tears. A gripping depiction of a modern-day Lancelot out to pierce the heart of tornadoes that bring terror from the sky like ancient dragons.”
Lydia Reeder, author of Dust Bowl Girls

“With the perfect blend of deep reporting, incredible access, and elegant writing, this book reveals the complicated character of the most famous tornado chaser of all time—a man whose drive to finish what he started will ensure that he’ll go down in history as a self-sacrificing American hero.”
Michael J. Mooney, author of The Life and Legend of Chris Kyle

“Pulse-pounding … Hargrove’s biography will gratify severe-weather fans while memorializing its protagonist.”

“A detailed, nuanced portrait of what drove this man into the path of some of the world's most dangerous storms.”
Dallas Morning News

“Insightful … Hargrove not only skillfully presents Samaras’s life story but also the collective story of a storm-chasing subculture. … Hargrove paints a complete picture of the engineer while providing lessons on the science behind tornadoes.”
Publishers Weekly

“Essential reading as we enter tornado season.”
The Oklahoman

“A deft blend of humanity and science, achievement and tragedy.”
Amazon Book Review, “Best Biographies and Memoirs of the Month”

“Fascinating … a fast-paced, dynamic account of a man and his obsession, providing us an entrée into a subculture few will ever experience. … The Man Who Caught the Storm is a fitting tribute — and why we read biography. … Hargrove’s pacing is perfect, the tension unnerving.”
Lone Star Literary

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