Arts News: Diary of a Storm Chaser

If 12-year-old Reed Timmer had been harmed the day he used the family video camera to shoot a severe thunderstorm in his West Michigan front yard, the budding inclement weather fan might have thought twice about the perils associated with becoming an extreme storm chaser.

Fortunately, young Timmer emerged unscathed from the quarter-size hail that plummeted from the heavens that day. Less lucky was the ruined video camera.

“It probably died more from water exposure than hail damage,” Timmer says. “But over the years I’ve been pelted with hail up to golf ball size — which is painful — but it’s got to get up to that grapefruit or baseball size to really break a bone.”

Taking calculated risks is part of Timmer’s job as an extreme meteorologist and storm chaser for AccuWeather, which provides commercial weather forecasts worldwide. In the last 20 years, he’s gotten remarkably close to more than 1,000 tornadoes to measure wind speeds on the ground and gather other scientific data that could save lives in the future.

“A tornado in itself is a beautiful thing,” Timmer says. “But the damage it leaves behind is horrible. Hopefully, down the road, engineers can better design homes to withstand that type of devastation.”

Timmer also has experience as a first responder. In 2010, he and his storm-chasing team went from home to home — or what was left of them — searching for survivors of a twister in Yazoo City, Mississippi, as shown on the Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers.”

“We heard a moan and looked down to find a man with a broken back,” Timmer recalls. “Then we found a first responder with a backboard and we carried the man for about half a mile through the debris. Finally, he was airlifted out to a hospital. We later visited him. He was paralyzed from the waist down, but he did survive.”

Does Timmer consider himself brave to be in his line of work?

“I’m not brave enough to change the oil in my own vehicle,” he says. “I just love storm chasing. As soon as I got my driver’s license, I realized that I could drive after the storms and didn’t have to wait for them to come to me anymore.

“I love nature. I love seeing the science in motion. I love trying to do the best I can to record data. Overall, I want to increase awareness about severe weather — what storms are capable of — and show their power up close and personal.”

It can get a bit too personal. As when Timmer was pursuing a “monster tornado” in his SUV this past April in Canton, Texas, which made for a white-knuckle YouTube video.

“That scared me a little bit, because my vehicle got stuck in a ditch in the path of the tornado,” he says. “I was looking at the edge of the tornado, basically, and trees and power poles were getting ripped out of the ground. Then my four-wheel drive somehow popped me out of the ditch. I barely got away from that one.”

Timmer’s latest storm-chasing assistant is the 360 Tornado Probe. The device features an array of 360-degree cameras and measures wind speed/direction and the pressure fall inside a tornado. One thing it doesn’t measure is fear. Timmer laughs at the notion.

“I love storms,” he says. “I’m afraid of the damage that they leave behind. The dark side of tornados is something that we’re all trying to prevent.”

Extreme meteorologist and storm chaser Reed Timmer will speak at 7 p.m. Sept. 14 at Linda Hall Library, 5109 Cherry St., Kansas City, Missouri. The event is free, but registration is required. For more information, go to lindahall.org/events

Above: Extreme meteorologist and storm chaser Reed Timmer will speak at 7 p.m. Sept. 14 at Linda Hall Library. (Discovery Channel)

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shared his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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