TV Draft Round 10 – Pick 8 – Dave Selects – Storm Chasers

Welcome to the Hanspostcard TV Draft. I hope you will enjoy it! Today’s post was written by Dave at

First, I’d like to thank Hans for coming up with the idea for this event, way back when, and especially Max for inviting me in and keeping it going when circumstances prevented it from continuing on the original website.

So many shows, so little time… the fellow participants have described quite a few shows that are new to me but sound interesting and I hope to watch some of them in time. I had lots of options for my final pick. I thought of Frasier, but I believe someone else might still give it a look before the end. Likewise, I was tempted to do another ’90s fixture…one which keeps going more reliably than the Energizer Bunny, The Simpsons. It gave me many, many laughs through the years and while it’s been awhile since I’ve seen a new episode (if keeping track, there are now 728 to choose from) in its prime, the first nine or ten seasons, it was one of the most consistently intelligent, witty and influential shows of its time. But there’s so much there, it seemed an overwhelming topic to dig into!  And I had planned to review the British series Cracker, a psychological drama about a deeply-troubled, drinking, gambling, womanizing psychiatrist (played by the great Robbie Coltrane, pre-Harry Potter fame) who gets called on by Scotland Yard to help the police to come up with psychological profiles of notorious criminals to help them “crack” tough cases. It was gritty, realistic (for one thing, sometimes the “bad guy” somehow won ) and suspenseful. But it’s been so long since I watched it, I’ve forgotten a lot about it. So instead I’ll opt for a guilty pleasure, and dip my toe into the “reality TV” sector, look at the radar and go for Storm Chasers.

Ordinarily, I have no time for the concept of “realityTV”, especially since I tend to think of most of it as the most un-real TV out there. I have zero interest  in keeping up with any Kardashians, don’t feel like being a peeping tom on ten bitchy, beautful young things thrown into a big house together and am not sure if I could survive one episode of Survivor, let alone 30 seasons of it. But Storm Chasers happened to have some redeeming features and played on one of my personal fascinations – severe storms and especially tornadoes.

In a nutshell, Storm Chasers followed around real-life teams of, you guessed it, storm chasers, in a sort of reality version of the movie Twister. It ran on Discovery Channel for five years from 2007 through 2012, for a total of a mere 36 episodes. That movie, coupled with rapidly advancing technology both in radar (current dopplar radar can show not only type and intensity of precipitation falling but things like wind direction and any debris that may be flying around in the air) and portable electronics led to a boom in “chasing” as a hobby in the ’90s and early-2000s. You’ve probably noticed that every time there’s a severe weather outbreak, TV and internet news quickly have film footage of tornadoes touching down and with luck, ripping up only open countryside. While occasionally this comes from ordinary folks who look out their back door and say “holy crap! Tornado…”, the majority of the videos come from a relatively small number of professional chasers who spend their spring and summers traveling around the country, looking for severe storms to document.  Reed Timmer has become one of the most unlikely celebrities around merely by doing that for years and putting out books and videos on the storms. And he was one of the stars of Storm Chasers.

Although the lineups changed a little from year to year, most seasons had three “teams” of chasers, if you will, each with slightly different goals. Timmer set forth to capture great videos and still photos of storms for TV news and publishing his own books and calendars.  Somewhat similar, the cranky Sean Casey was commissioned to make an Imax film on tornadoes and was singularly focused on that, trying to meet deadlines and not go over-budget doing so. Then there was Tim Samaras and his team, something of a different breed. Serious meteorologists, Tim wanted to help science know more about severe storms and routinely tried to get just one step ahead of tornadoes, deploy portable probes full of instruments then scoot off, hoping the tornado would go right over top of the probe and document things like wind speed and air pressure inside one. This is especially useful as if we want to build storm-proof structures, it’s helpful to know what kind of conditions they really need to withstand. One relatively new finding for instance, is that though pressure is low inside a tornado, it’s not low enough to “explode” buildings from inside-out. Opening doors and windows in fact will add to your home’s damage in a storm, not prevent it.

As you can imagine, the three teams knew each other and often crossed paths… they all had the same information and typically were able to interpret the weather much the same as one another. They’d study the weather maps and radars the night before, and set out early aiming to where they figured the best chance of severe storms were going to be on a given day. Mostly they filmed in the traditional “tornado alley” of the Great Plains states (Texas and Kansas more than any others) but at times they’d venture out east of the Mississippi as far afield as Alabama… something they don’t like doing so much, as they point out, because the hilly, forested terrain makes it more difficult to see storms a ways away compared to the open Plains.  Much of the time, they were trying to get to the same storm as the others, a few minutes ahead, to get the ultimate photos.

stchasers tiv

Among the show’s stars were the vehicles. Both Casey and Timmer drove heavily-modified trucks full of instruments, radars, screens and more and turned into virtual tanks outside to withstand storm damage. Casey’s “TIV” – Tornado Intercept Vehicle – was a heavily modified Ford F-series diesel truck , fortified with steel plates upto 1/4” thick, bullet-proof, inch-plus thick plexiglass windows and four hydraulic legs which could come out and anchor the vehicle. It had sirens and a loudspeaker, to help alert people to oncoming storms, often before police were aware of the building storm. It weighed 14 000 pounds, and a replacement one he had built successfully withstood 175 MPH winds in one Kansas storm.  Timmer had something similar, but for all that, he still got bloodied one time when hail smashed his windshield. Bullet-proof doesn’t always equal Kansas hailstone-proof it seemed!  Surprisingly, Samaras the scientist and his team drove more ordinary pickups with their probes in the back and relied on getting out of the twisters’ way just in time.

I loved the action of the show, because I love storms. They’ve excited me since I was little. And each episode showcased some incredible storms. Even the ones in which they didn’t get to see a tornado were often spectacular, lightning shows with hail, pounding rain, howling winds. And I learned a bit about the actual science of the thunderstorms. Educational “reality TV”…go figure.

The chasers showed several things. Storm-chasing is largely a young mans field. Although Timmer’s girlfriend tagged along with him from time to time, they were mostly young guys, fueled by energy drinks and junk food who one imagines might have been skateboarding or jumping off cliffs if not following thunderstorms. And it showed it was a dangerous pursuit. Even forgetting about the tornadoes themselves, they came perilously close to being hit by lightning more than a few times while standing out in a field filming. Hail smashed through the thickest of windows and could make roads impassably slippery. In one episode two of their vehicles got stuck in the same country road, made into a muddy quagmire by the downpour. And even with good eyes and  the best radars, a tornado can touch down unexpectedly or do a sudden 180-turn and take them by surprise.

Casey eventually got his film made. The show was canceled after season 5, and Samaras was said to have been pleased as while he liked the show’s potential, he felt it spent far too much time on the inter-personal drama between the crews and not enough on the actual science, something I concur with. He successfully planted a few probes in the path of tornadoes and added to the knowledge of the field, but sadly demonstrated that the hobby is anything but play. He, his grown son and another team member died in a massive Oklahoma tornado a year after the show ended. It seemed their un-reinforced car made a wrong turn and got overtaken by an unexpectedly huge and violent funnel. It put any ideas for a future series aside…but amazingly, seems to have done nothing to quell interest in storm-chasing among amateur meteorologists and videographers across the nation.