by David Owen November 1, 2010
I. When Reed Timmer was a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, in 1999, he and three friends abandoned their convertible during a major storm and took shelter under a highway overpass. A huge tornado was bearing down on them, and Timmer could see tree branches, car parts, and pink fibreglass house insulation in the vortex. The funnel “peeledasphalt off the road and roofs from houses, dissected heavy machinery, and deposited torn-off airplane wings into distant fields,” he wrote recently. Just in front of the overpass, the tornado made a sudden left turn, and the students escaped unharmed. Back at O.U., Timmer, who was deeply shaken, struggled with his emotions. On the one hand, he felt lucky to be alive; on the other hand, he wanted to doit again.
II. Today, Timmer—who went on to earn his undergraduate degree in meteorology and is close to completing his Ph.D.—is a star of the television program “Storm Chasers,” on the Discovery Channel, where the credits identify him as an “extreme meteorologist.” On the show and in real life, he and various companions pursue genuinely frightening weather formations back and forth across themost storm-prone parts of the United States, in an extensively customized and fortified Chevrolet Tahoe, which they call the Dominator. Earlier this month, Timmer and the Dominator were in New York, accompanied by several members of his crew. They had come to the city to talk about both the TV series and Timmer’s book, “Into the Storm,” which has just been published. They were a month too late tochase the storm that crossed Brooklyn in mid-September—a storm that was classified by the National Weather Service as a weak tornado. Timmer said he wasn’t convinced that it really was a tornado, but, even so, he found polite things to say about it. “It wasn’t the classic kind of supercell you get in Tornado Alley,” he said, “but I saw a video, and it looked like there was a lot of rain and kind ofan outflow gust front. There could have been building influences, where you get wake eddies and funnelling and intensified wind that can knock down trees.”
III. Timmer is boyish and fit-looking, despite the fact that, during storm season, he and his colleagues subsist on what he described as “gas-station burritos and energy drinks.” The Dominator, by contrast, looks like the bottom half of anold Army boot. It has inch-thick bulletproof outer windows and a brown, hide-like shell made of Kevlar and polyethylene. “They use this stuff to cover oil tankers in war situations,” Timmer explained, “because it will fuse up behind a bullet and prevent the tanker from leaking.” He placed a hand on the sloping rear window and explained that it had been pitted, and all the paint scoured from itsmetal frame, by a mile-wide tornado they’d encountered in Minnesota earlier in the year. “We were actually inside that one for a few minutes,” he said. “We measured verticalwinds of two hundred miles per hour right above the vehicle. Your ears pop inside tornadoes, because of the intense pressure fall, so it was pretty insane in there.”
IV. The Dominator is the creation of Kevin Barton, a formerrace-car builder and golf-course superintendent, whose appearances on the show are mainly emergency-related. Barton had travelled to the city with Timmer, and he started up the vehicle and headed for Times Square, with Timmer’s publicist acting as the navigator. Pedestrians waved as the Dominator passed, and many took pictures with their phones. A laughing man in a black “I♥NY” T-shirt shouted,“What the hell is this?” and Timmer shouted back, “It’s a tornado tank! We drive into tornadoes with it!” Another man, also laughing, shouted, “That’s the shit, y’all. That’s the shit.” Barton said that the curiosity of fans could sometimes be a problem, and that “cars will literally surround you on the highway” to get a closer look and, often, to shoot video. Timmer said, “We had someone hit us...