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Tornado chasing is a drive that can kill

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Tim II.jpg


It was the first week of  June ’08, a time of a terrific outbreak of tornados across the Midwest.  My brother, Kirk, and I had been dodging storms for two days while gathering stories in four states on new crop production technology. 


Seeing all the hail and wind damage, we soon realized that the weather had become the week’s big story.  On the third day, as we approached the Kansas border we saw still another huge system building on the horizon.  Storm sirens had been blowing in the last town we passed through. 


The wide open country seemed entirely vacant until all of a sudden we came over a hill and spotted a strange scene. Three vehicles were parked along the roadside, with a group of people out in the open scanning the threatening skies with video cameras and other instruments.


We stopped to investigate and soon fell in with “Tornado Tim” (photo above) and his crew. These storm chasers were tracking an historic outbreak of tornados, and the energy about their work was infectious. 


Tornado Tim Baker gave us an interview (see video below), and advised us to take cover as soon as we could.  But I had gotten the bug and felt the urge to follow the storms rolling through Kansas that afternoon. Later that day, my brother and I arrived at a farm near Clay Center, minutes after a tornado hit, and we were able to document a gripping story of how the family hunkered down and saved themselves in the nick of time (video, below).


A colleague of Baker’s, Tim Samaras, a meteorologist and tornado chaser and also a Coloradoan, lost his life last week in the El Reno, Oklahoma, storm. The killer tornado also took the lives of Paul Samaras, his son, and Carl Young, his chase partner. The crew was caught by the multiple-vortex tornado that had quickly changed directions.


Tim Baker knew Tim Samaras, and admired his work.


“I am deeply saddened by his death, and shocked as he was one of the most professional at chasing, and the fact that a tornado killed him and Carl Young, well, it shows even the best are risking more than many realized,” Baker told me today.


The work that these tornado chasers perform is to help us better understand tornado behavior and develop improved tornado warning systems. There’s high drama in the profession, and obviously high risk. 


That day in June 2008, I got the tornado chasing bug, and it drove me into the path of some crazy weather.  Anyone who works out on the land every day probably knows the feeling.