When the weather reports say “severe” and “evacuate”—most people do everything in their power to run far, far away. But then there’s meteorologist Reed Timmer of the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers. He runs right into the heart of some of the worst weather conditions Mother Nature can muster up like F5 tornadoes and hurricanes named Katrina. We caught up with Reed as a new season of Storm Chasers premieres on Sunday, October 18th at 10pm (EP/PT) to get the lowdown on what it’s like to be inside the action.
RADARONLINE.COM: When did you become interested in weather?
REED TIMMER: I grew up in Michigan. For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with weather. I’d watch weather on TV for 12 hours a day! When I was really little, I remember being deathly afraid of thunderstorms, whenever thunder and lightening would come, I’d freak out and run in to my mom’s room. That turned in to a curiosity and an obsession. I just loved weather from that age. Whenever a thunderstorm would come, or a severe warning would be issued, I’d freak out and run around the house and get all excited. I love snowstorms, severe weather, I always wanted to be a storm chaser or a meteorologist – even before the movie Twister came out.
RADARONLINE.COM: How did you even figure out that storm chasing was an actual career?
RT: I actually sent a lot of letters to storm chasers at the time. There were a lot of them. There was a guy, Tim Marshall, he was one of the originals, I used to write him letters all the time and he would send me DVDs. Then when Twister came out, obviously I knew you could make a living.
RADARONLINE.COM: Tell us a little bit about what’s going to happen on Storm Chasers this season.
RT: This year, we definitely took it to a whole new level in terms of research equipment and getting closer to tornadoes. We were as close as you could get, being inside a few. Last year, we made a lot of mistakes; we just didn’t see a lot of tornadoes. It was a bad year, last year and we were extremely disappointed. We needed a year like this one [coming up on the show]. Storm chasing is very hit or miss. You can do all the right things and still miss every tornado during the season. There is so much we don’t know, but that’s what makes it exciting.
RADARONLINE.COM : How easy is it to miscalculate tornadoes?
RT: You can usually know there is going to be a tornado outbreak on a given day because all the ingredients are in place—you just don’t know exactly where. Even if you have multiple storms in an environment where it looks like all the ingredients are in place, still, you can only get one or two storms producing tornadoes and it’s hit or miss on whether you will be on that storm. We have a lot more tools now, like mobile radar, so we can watch the storms online in real time, and there are more tools that you can use so you can determine which storms are going to produce tornadoes and which aren’t. One thing that can be overlooked is using your eyes, and that takes experience, just visually inspecting storms from a distance to see which ones look most intense and have the best chance of producing tornadoes. This year we put bulletproof armor on our vehicle.
RADARONLINE.COM: What is it like once you’re inside a storm? How do you not freak out?
RT: We try to block it out because there’s always this fight between reason and instinct. Instinct is the voice in the back of your head that says “get out of there as fast as you can and run in the other direction!” But reason, from just the experiences we’ve had over the last ten years getting really close to tornadoes, we know our level of safety and what we have to do to stay safe. Now we have armor covering our whole entire vehicle, so that adds a little bit of extra security, but I can tell you there’s nothing more exhilarating for me than seeing a tornado in the front windscreen and hitting the gas pedal. It’s definitely exhilarating!
RADARONLINE.COM: Have you seen any interesting things flying around?
RT: We’ve seen some weird things. The largest I’ve ever seen was May 3, 1999, an F5 tornado I saw, right when we first started storm chasing. At that one, there was a massive radio tower going around in a circle in the tornado. This season on “Storm Chasers” we intercepted a tornado west of Kirksville, MO, on May 13th, and that one, we were driving up to the tornado – I remember looking off to the left and seeing this huge herd of mini Jackasses, these little donkeys, there must have been 100s of them in this field. After we intercepted the tornado, we came back the next day and there were like 10 of them left. I didn’t see any of them flying through the air but I am assuming they probably were.
RADARONLINE.COM: Have you ever feared for your life?
RT: Definitely. I think it’s important to know this is extremely dangerous too, even if you have armor on your vehicle. People watch it on the series but you definitely don’t want to try this, you could easily lose your life if you don’t know what you’re doing – even if you do know what you’re doing when you drive in to a tornado. One time, this year, we drove in to a tornado and it looked like it was relatively weak, but the next thing we know, the whole vehicle was surrounded by debris and the wind was picking up, it sounded like a jet engine. The tornado was intensifying right on top of us. This mini vortex inside the tornado hit the left side of the vehicle and blew the window in. It hit me in the face, and I remember putting my hand up to my face and pulling it away and seeing blood and at that point I realized that maybe there was glass in my eyes. It could have been pretty bad. Thankfully the tornado moved by after that and we were in the clear but I was pretty worried for our lives at that point.
RADARONLINE.COM: Does your friends and family fear for you every time you go out?
RT: Yea, my mom has actually grown to accept the tornado chasing more—she doesn’t like it when we chase hurricanes. We chased Hurricane Katrina a few years back and lost our car to the 12-foot storm surge and had to ride out by fishing boat and then hitch hike back to Jackson, Mississippi, where we rented a car. I couldn’t talk to my mom for days because the cell phone towers were down and she was freaking out cause she saw all the news reports and she was filing a missing person report. When you’re chasing a hurricane, you can’t leave like you can a tornado. When you chase a tornado, you can chase it and drive five minutes and be in the sun—but with a hurricane, you have to ride it out for days.
RADARONLINE.COM: Is it hard to have a personal life with this type of intense career?
RT: I don’t have a family now. It’s pretty hard to find significant others, I think, in the storm chasing business. There’s a lot of time and dedication it takes to see a lot of tornadoes so we’re gone several months out of the year, driving in to tornadoes and the level of security is just not there. I’d love to have a family some time down the road; I just don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon. I’d like to see 500 or 600 tornadoes first before that happens.
RADARONLINE.COM: Have you always been an adrenaline junkie?
RT: I’ve always been a thrill seeker for as long as I can remember. I definitely like the adrenaline, I can’t lie to you there, but at the same time we’re obsessed with the science as well. I’ve been going to school for twelve years now, which is way too long, but I care about advancing understanding of tornadoes by taking measurements inside the funnel and try to better understand them. Right now there is so much we don’t know because it’s so hard to measure data inside them because they’re so strong and it’s hard to drive in to tornadoes.