Having intercepted over 300 tornadoes and a dozen powerful hurricanes during the last decade, Reed Timmer is well-known as the most successful and extreme storm chaser in the world. Reed starred on Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers, one of the highest-rated shows on the Discovery Channel with over 19 million viewers. He is currently using Kickstarter to fund the second season his online docu-series “Tornado Chasers”. Media Mikes had a chance to chat with Reed about chasing tornadoes and his his new show.
Jennifer Kish: What motivated you want to start driving into a storm? What goes through your mind the very moment you are about to drive into a tornado?
Reed Timmer: Well I loved the weather ever since I was five years old. I was a major science nerd growing up and weather and storm chasing were my passion. The second I got my driver’s license, I was trying to chase storms. I had no idea what I was doing, but when I was eighteen I came down to the University of Oklahoma and started in meteorology. Back then I had a 1985 Plymouth Reliant with a blown out muffler, trying to chase storms and actually I didn’t know what I was doing and I was a long way from knowing how to storm chase. I came into the path of an F5 and I abandoned the vehicle and went underneath an over pass and this massive tornado went through it and trees were getting knocked to the ground and wobbled a little when it was outside the circulation and I got covered in mud I never felt like it was threatening me. I was just obsessed with being that close to something so powerful and photogenically beautiful but also scientifically beautiful because I wanted to understand it. Then I saw the dark side of the tornado and the damage that they leave behind, which was more motivating to go out and storm chase and help out the best we can in the warning process without getting directly caught in the damage path. Seeing tornadoes up close they have these complexities near the ground where when the main tornado interacts with the friction of the earth they will split up into multiply vortices which are called suction vortices and the suction vortices can have winds that are way above 500 or 600 miles per hour. At least that’s what the math or the theory shows but they have never been measured directly. So our goal in building the armored case or the Dominator is to enter probes inside these things and the mobile radar and all kinds of instruments and try to be the first to measure what would be that high directly. So that of course would be the armored case of the Dominators one main goal.
JK: So what can you tell us about your docu-series “Tornado Chasers” and using Kickstarter to fund it?
RT: We were on Discovery Channels “Storm Chasers” for four years and it was a great run and it helped us in making these armored vehicles financially. There was a lot that went in that was my own money, I am not the kind of guy that saves up for retirement so I put everything into the radars and we have this air canon probe in the back of Dominator. We put in these containers that shoot instruments probes inside and the parachutes deploy that can turn around inside that measure temperature, moisture & pressure. When “Storm Chasers” came to end, I thought we had a few more years to go on it. That’s when we decided to go full board to the Internet and we always knew the Internet was the future and in the normal right amount of time, but we did the “Tornado Chasers” in 2012 and it was with our old director of photography and the guy that filmed in the tornadoes with us. And Discovery through Whiteneck and he did the show like “Deadliest Catch,” “Dirty Jobs” so it has this television quality but it was also shot and edited by our best friends that know us very well so when you’re out there storm chasing you’re not just shooting a show but your just out there with some friends storm chasing. So you have the unique ability to cover not only the storm chasing but our lives. We make a lot of sacrifices for chasing tornadoes putting together over 50-80 thousand dollars a year. I’ve been back home here only 10 days total in the last year. Your personal life is thrown out the window; you eat of gas stations, staying in crazy hotels. But shooting these independently with your best friends gives them a unique opportunity to cover intimately our lives as storm chasers doing what we love and following our passion but also seen tornado activity that is extreme footage from cameras and all the new technologies we can mount on the outside the vehicle while as we are intercepting and show a tornadoes power first hand and show what a tornado looks like from inside. We have Dominator 1 &2 and we are building a third vehicle for our plans to surround tornado with the three vehicles. The goal is to cover more of the characters side of a storm chaser balancing tornado to tornado and team to team is very difficult to build that story on it. People can watch our 2012 season on our web page tvnweather.com. The Kickstarter campaign at tvnweather.com/kickstarter or you can go to kickstarter.com/tornado chasers. We ask you to help fund our 2013 series and we want to take it to the next level with newer technologies and more people to power the vehicles and it’s just fun that demographic and independent . It’s more fun and more natural.
RT: Well more research equipment & cameras and the instruments are working and everything is all tested out and the air cannons are valid and we have Dominator 3 which is like the back to the future vehicle with these Delorean doors which go up and can be in stronger tornadoes. If we can blow pass our Kickstarter goal the more that we can generate. We will get inside stronger tornadoes. I feel like with Discovery we never got the opportunity to show what the second Dominator was capable of. They have an armored shell aerodynamic and they have hydraulics that drop spikes to the ground. Dominator one never had spikes so we would get in strong tornadoes and slide across the ground and that would have been an improvement in Dominator two the spikes would be hydraulically deployed into the pavement and they go a good 4 to 5 inches. We have better radar data and we really want to show what we are capable of scientifically and get inside that really strong tornado that we never had the opportunity to do during “Storm Chasers.”
JK: What makes this Dominator different from the previous two? Do you have a special process that helps you determine what vehicle to use and the modifications you need to make?
RT: Yes, well Dominator one was build on the concept of an airplane wing, rounded top, sides and flat bottom side and that caused lift. So we added hydraulics and aerodynamic bullet proof outer shell with power windows instead of the windows you had to lift manually because that took forever and that way there is no problems. The hydraulics will drop the vehicle flushed to the ground so that no wind can get underneath and that get rids of that upward force and we won’t go flying through the air. We had the window blow out because outer Lexan window got stuck so I had to roll up the other window and we are inside the tornado blew out the window. So in Dominator three, we added a triple windshield wiper system to keep the windshield clean. So we have a windshield wiper on the outside the inside of the outer windshield, the outside of the inner windshield. It can get a little confusing with all the windshield wipers. And with Dominator 3 we actually added a compartment in the back for search and rescue and first aid so if we come across a damage path we are more equipped from that angle to help out the rescue efforts. We also have an missile launchers that will shoot a rocket probe into the tornado that measure temperature, moisture, and pressure.
JK: How did the show “Storm Chasers” impact your life and the way you chase storms?
RT: I have always chased storms the same and have gotten really up close to them. All in like 400 hundred dollar vehicles 85 Reliant, 1991 Topaz and after that I had a Chevy Lumina that was held together with duct tape. And what the show “Storm Chasers” was started for five years it felt like a time warp, everything happened so fast and the next thing we know we have two armored vehicles and then three and then all this people around working on the same things, people I didn’t know. I realized when storm chasers ended all those people were gone and I ended up sitting in my house by myself looking at my computer looking around and wondering where the hell did everybody go? The people that are left behind are the people are the people that were always there from before “Storm Chasers” and are really truly passionate about tornado side and not are more into the sheltered side then the reality TV side of things. There are a lot of good things about it and a lot of bad things too. It did help us develop and do a lot research wise then just getting close to tornadoes and shooting videos of them. It helped us get instruments like mobile radar and air cannons all this stuff. I put all that I had in my pocket and the funding help from discovery made this all happen and faster instead of taking ten years to develop all these research equipment.
JK: You took storm chasing to the next level with not only driving along side of the tornadoes but driving inside of them.. That is a pretty extreme career.. So what do you do when you are not chasing? Do you find yourself trying to top that level of excitement or do you do the opposite and pursue more low key activities?
RT: Well it takes us year round with storm chasing. We chase blizzards and hurricanes and all kinds of things. We are the road non-stop and we also do a lot of speaking events to help make ends meet. I am home like 10 days out of the year. I don’t get out much and I don’t get to have that much of a personal life. I work on my dissertations and graduate. I was in school for 15 years and grad school too. I guess I’m a lot like Van Wilder minus the fun part. I like to ski but I haven’t been able to do for a year and a half. I almost feel lost in the off season because when you are storm chasing there is a well defining goal of driving into a tornado and during the off season it isn’t there so I just don’t know what to do with myself sometimes.
JK: Besides the thrill and love of storm chasing, there is also the scientific side; what have you learned and what do you hope to continue to learn about these storms?
RT: Well we learned that with the mobile radar that the vertical wind can be just as strong a s the horizontal and contrast speeds of 170- 200 mph can extend all the way to the ground so the tornado is almost like a vacuum cleaner. The ground based measurements of tornadoes and most of the research previously with mobile radar is through the wind that is higher opposite storms ✳ so our goal is to unravel that mystery right to the ground and prove that those wind speeds can get up to 500-600 mph in the suction vortices of tornadoes and the multiply vortex tornadoes that are spinning around like a merry go round. That’s our goal is to try to get up close and to get inside it proves how strong the tornado is right by the ground and those are the ones that matter most because that cause the damage and loss of life and property. The just generally understanding the dynamic of tornadoes will help us increase warning times in the area.
JK: I’ve seen on your website that you offer extreme tornado tours. What can someone expect to experience from one of those tours?
RT: It is extreme. You can go to extremetornadotours.com for schedule. They ride along in a town car and of course you don’t get inside a tornado but they get you close. You get these tornadoes and softball size hail. They have ten day tours. If you go to our Kickstarter campaign site at tvnweather.com/kickstarter or search tornado chasers on kickstarter.com and you can make these pledges and you can get rewards and one of the rewards is riding with us in the Dominator one.
JK: Out of all the storms that you have experienced throughout your chase career, is there any kind of storm that even you have been intimidated by?
RT: Yes definitely. The tornado that blew our window out, I thought we were in trouble because that was a slow moving one and we were inside for so long. It just kept intensifying and intensifying and our ears were popping and the whole vehicle was vibrating back and forth and I thought for a second there we were going to get lifted off the ground. There was also Hurricane Katrina where we were trapped in the storm surge and then we were on a third floor balcony and we hitched a ride by fishing boat and then we actually hitch hiked while walked 4-6 miles but we hitch hiked to Louisiana and we squatted in a hotel because all there was all chaos. The next day we hitched hiked again a guy picked us up and drove to Mississippi and we rented a car and drove home. I didn’t have cell coverage and couldn’t make a phone call for three days. I called my mom and found out she filed a missing persons report. My poor mom!