As most readers know by now, Tim Samaras, his adult son Paul, and their storm-observing partner Carl Young were killed by the El Reno tornado on the afternoon of 31 May 2013. This is mostly about Tim since he was the one I knew best of the three; but that doesn’t diminish in any way the contributions and life of Paul and Carl.
Tim was a friend, someone I’ve known for nearly 20 years, a highly respected colleague in field work, a safe and conscientious storm observer, and deeply devoted to improving our understanding of tornadoes and lightning.
A born tinkerer and explorer with boundless curiosity and an insatiable thirst for understanding, Tim was an engineer by profession who designed and refurbished some amazing data- and image-gathering instruments. His electronics skills were put to use not just inside tornadoes, but for high-speed documentation of lightning behavior. His observational accomplishments were amazing, and were just beginning to be analyzed and published.
Unlike many chasers who claim to “do it for science”, Tim was the real deal–a bonafide published scientist. Here’s a bibliography of Tim’s scientific publications, with links where possible (if any are missing, please tell me…I’ll gladly add them):
Lee, B. D., C. A. Finley, and T. M. Samaras, 2011: Surface analysis near and within the Tipton, Kansas, tornado on 29 May 2008. Mon. Wea. Rev., 139, 370-386.
Karstens, C. D., T. M. Samaras, B. D. Lee, W. A. Gallus, and C. A. Finley, 2010: Near-ground pressure and wind measurements in tornadoes. Mon. Wea. Rev., 138, 2570-2588.
Finley, C. A., B. D. Lee, M. Grzych, C. D. Karstens, and T. M. Samaras, 2010: Mobile mesonet observations of the rear-flank downdraft evolution associated with a violent tornado near Bowdle, SD on 22 May 2010. Preprints, 25th Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Denver, CO, Amer. Meteor. Soc., 8A.2.
Karstens, C. D., T. M. Samaras, W. A. Gallus, C. A. Finley, B. D. Lee 2010: Analysis of near-surface wind flow in close proximity to tornadoes. Preprints, 25th Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Denver, CO, Amer. Meteor. Soc., P10.11.
Lee, B. D., C. A. Finley, C. D. Karstens, and T. M. Samaras, 2010: Surface observations of the rear-flank downdraft evolution associated with the Aurora, NE tornado of 17 June 2009. Preprints, 25th Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Denver, CO, Amer. Meteor. Soc., P8.27.
Lee, B.D., C. A. Finley, and T. M. Samaras, 2008: Thermodynamic and kinematic analysis near and within the Tipton, KS tornado on May 29 during TWISTEX 2008. Preprints, 24th Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Savannah, GA, Amer. Meteor. Soc., P3.13.
Karstens, C. D., T. M. Samaras, A. Laubach, B. D. Lee, C. A. Finley, W. A. Gallus, F. L. Hann, 2008. TWISTEX 2008: In situ and mobile mesonet observations of tornadoes. Preprints, 24th Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Savannah, GA, Amer. Meteor. Soc., P3.11.
Samaras, T.M., 2006: Dynamic measurements of the lowest 10 meters of tornadoes. Preprints, 23rd Conf. on Severe Local Storms, St. Louis, MO, Amer. Meteor. Soc., 14.3.
Samaras, T.M., 2006: In-situ photogrammetric analysis of the June 11, 2004 tornado near Storm Lake, Iowa. Preprints, 23rd Conf. on Severe Local Storms, St. Louis, MO, Amer. Meteor. Soc., P9.7.
Samaras, T. M., and J. J. Lee, 2006: Measuring tornado dynamics with in-situ instrumentation. Proc. 2006 Structures Congress: 2006 Structural Engineering and Public Safety, St. Louis, MO, 1-10, (doi 10.1061/40889(201)12).
Lee, J. J., T. M. Samaras, and C. R. Young, 2004: Pressure measurements at the ground in an F-4 tornado. Preprints, 22nd Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Hyannis, MA, Amer. Meteor. Soc., 15.3.
Samaras, T. M., 2004: A historical perspective of in-situ observations within tornado cores. Preprints, 22nd Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Hyannis, MA, Amer, Meteor. Soc., CD_ROM, P11.4.
Samaras, T.M., and J. J. Lee, 2004. Pressure measurements within a large tornado. Proc. Eighth Symp. on Integrated Observing and Assimilation Systems for Atmosphere, Oceans, and Land Surface, Seattle, WA., Amer. Meteor. Soc., P4.9.
Wurman, J., and T. Samaras, 2004: Comparison of in-situ pressure and DOW Doppler winds in a tornado and RHI vertical slices through 4 tornadoes during 1996-2004. Preprints, 22nd Conf. on Severe Local Storms, Amer. Meteor. Soc., Hyannis, MA, Amer. Meteor. Soc., 15.4.
More importantly, Tim was a genuine gentleman, approachable and generous with a smile and a laugh, a devoted family man, and as authentic of a person as I’ve known. No pretensions, no agendas…just a passion-driven desire to channel his keen intellect into better measuring and understanding of the storms he observed. Tim was one of the most highly regarded class acts in this realm, by me and just about everyone else, regardless of our backgrounds. He dealt with the crazy variety of personalities and demands in the worlds of media and storm observing with extraordinary grace, diplomacy and patience. At dealing with people, he was as much of a natural as in tangling with the violent skies.
Tim and I first exchanged e-mails when he was in his formative chase years in the early ’90s. We finally met on 23 May 1996 at Last Chance, CO, hanging out in a parking lot by the northeast corner of the crossroads, just before the development of this supercell. [I've recalled that encounter every time I've passed by that spot since.] Immediately, I was impressed not only by his technical wizardry and almost magical collection of onboard gizmos, but by his affable demeanor and willingness to chat about our shared passion for storms. We hit it off right away, and would keep in touch ever since at severe-storms conferences and on some chases. I participated in the field with him and the T.W.I.S.T.EX. project crew a few years back, and gladly wrote several supportive recommendation letters to National Geographic since the late ’90s to help him get funded. It was an honor to do those things, the only regret being that I didn’t spend more time with Tim and crew.
Meanwhile Elke, whom I didn’t know yet, became friends with Tim in the late ’90s, attended some of his talks in Colorado, chased with the early National Geographic-sponsored projects out there, met Paul while the latter was a teen, and attended chaser gatherings at his house. She also designed and built the website for his field project. Paul was a budding and talented photographer; and we admired his storm and landscape shots from afar. Soon after Elke and I got married, we met Carl–fittingly, after the end of a storm intercept with Tim in northern Kansas. Though we didn’t know him well, we liked him…our hearts are heavy for his family and friends as well.
Tim, Paul and Carl were about the last people I’d guess would perish in a tornado. It still seems impossible, surreal, unimaginable. This hurts, and will for a long time. Even as we grieve over this awful event, thoughts turn to the future, the legacy of these fine men, what this means for storm observing.
We can’t control how others (officials, media, etc.) react, but we can control our own actions. In particular, how can we as storm enthusiasts best honor Tim, Paul and Carl in our chase activities?
Humility in the field. We must humble ourselves before the forces of nature. Storms are far, far, far more powerful than you and I. It doesn’t matter how smart, experienced, or macho we think we are. A deliberate and actively practiced attitude of self-smallness and minimalism in the midst of a storm will set the foundation for each of the following…
Safety, courtesy and responsibility in and around storms. I can vouch, first-hand, that Tim and his crew chased responsibly! They didn’t run people off the road, leave doors open into highway lanes, block traffic, pass others uphill at 90 mph, lose their cool in frantic panic fits, or otherwise endanger those around them as many yahoo chasers have done. That is because Tim understood, better than most, that chasing is not about “me, myself and I”. It’s about the storms–and also, about others. Others matter. None of us are the only one on the road. We have to look out not just for ourselves, but for those around us. We owe it to our families, friends and loved ones, as well as to the legacy and memory of Tim, Paul and Carl, to do what it takes to get back home safely–which definitely includes…
Self-restraint. Even as uncomfortably close as Tim and his colleagues (including Elke and me, when each of us chased with him many years apart) got to the circulation center on a few occasions, we were well-drilled on awareness–keeping one’s head on a swivel, understanding storm behavior. Despite the enhanced proximity to danger inherent to his tornado-sampling mission, that is what kept him safe for over 20 years…until whatever horrifying predicament befell him on May 31st. Losing these respected friends and colleagues, who were as aware and conscientious about the behavior of violent storms as anybody, should teach us self-restraint. If that means backing off a few miles, so be it. Not even a scientific mission is worth one’s life. I’d rather have those guys here today than any of the data they ever collected–however meaningful and valuable it was. As for other chasers’ motives: the “money shot” video footage that many seek absolutely isn’t worth dying for. Zoom lenses exist for a reason. There will be more storm days; but we each have only one life here on Earth.
Give back! If there’s anything Tim was about, above all else, this was it. He gave his time and knowledge every year through school talks, providing data to researchers, participating in a few scientific publications himself, and organizing a conference to educate the entire community of storm observers, among other things. Just give back. Pay forward. It doesn’t matter how, big or small. Whether it’s real-time storm reports, publishing scientific results, giving educational seminars and talks, helping facilities to be better prepared in your community, recycling field-derived meteorological understanding back into your forecasting skills…whatever best fits your talents. This ingrained passion we have for severe storms is a God-given gift, a blessing, and numerous scientists and observers that came before us have allowed us the understanding we have of these storms. As such, we absolutely owe it to our Creator and society to use that gift to return the favor.
I wish and pray for the well-being of the Samaras and Young families as they grieve the loss of these outstanding men, and as we join them in mourning.
Rest in peace, friends and comrades…you’ve got the best view of the storms now.
“It’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you; it’s what you leave behind you when you go.”
– “Three Wooden Crosses” (Randy Travis)
Our beloved friend Iniki passed away on 19 May 2013 from an acute attack of symptoms related to apparent congestive heart failure. She had been her normal self until the last few days, when she rapidly grew listless, stopped eating and drinking, and hardly moved around. A visit to an emergency veterinary office (it was a weekend) revealed major (but relatively clean) fluid buildup in the lungs and a shutting down of the digestive system. We ruled out a lot of ailments, including an initial suspicion of Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), which has similar symptoms. Meanwhile she became so irrecoverably ill that we had to have her put down out of mercy, to stop the suffering.
The rest of this post isn’t about her much-premature death (she was only about 11), which might have been merciful in its speed of progress. Instead, let’s celebrate her life. And what a life it was! This beautiful, smart, majestic, regal, personable, comical and endearing kitty enriched our own human lives in so many little yet huge ways.
We got Iniki from a local cat-rescue and adoption outfit who had placed her in a display cage at PetSmart. She was a gorgeous, smaller than average, all-black mixed-breed with silky, medium-long hair and a pronounced mane. She also was a young adult of 1-2 years who already had produced a litter of kittens, and subsequently was spayed. I wasn’t there in the store; but she endeared herself to Elke and the kids on the spot, and that was all it took. Within days, once she learned the geography of our house, she wasted no time making it into her house!
Our second cat Emily (Emmy), also a former stray, didn’t come along until just a couple of years ago. They were slow to warm to one another, but within the last year or so of Iniki’s life, they were good pals, often playing chase games and sleeping near each other on Donna’s bed.
Iniki had a urinary imbalance that would cause crystals to form if not fed a specific kind of cat food, so we had to give her some rather expensive formulation that kept her healthy and well-nutrified, with a beautiful coat. She was well worth it.
Every day we’re without Iniki, all sorts of objects, places and trinkets around the house remind us of her. Cat owners often say this about their pets, but she truly had an outstanding and complex personality, all of it friendly, funny and memorable. She may have been named after a hurricane, but she was only a storm of affection, offering a delightfully vibrant personality, with countless endearing eccentricities and habits.
Quirks galore, she had! This is but a sampling…
- Her favorite place for the entire decade we had her was a wooden salad bowl on the kitchen island. That was her throne, bed, watch tower, and massage chair. Right after we brought her home, she just took it over–leaped right up there, curled up in that salad bowl to go to sleep, and did so almost every day since. No salads have been put there since. We were amazed that she could wind herself into a ball small enough to do that, but she could–and quite comfortably. If two or three of us were in the kitchen area, we could count on her either sitting or lying in that bowl, or begging for handouts nearby…
- This kitty was a world-class beggar. If Elke opened up a bag of raw fish, beef or shrimp for cooking, she would squeal and squawk with that squeaky voice of hers while following Elke around the kitchen, jumping from place to place and pacing all over the floor, island and sink area–sometimes pawing at whichever human was nearby. Yes, she most often received a little snack of said raw meat. Shrimp was her favorite, by far. She also was a skilled table-food beggar–sometimes even succeeding. Many dinners involved Iniki sitting on a shelf behind Elke, pawing Elke’s back and batting objects around to get attention.
- Iniki begged for (and received) dry cereal from me–but only in the office. I like to eat several varieties of dry cereal right from the box…and so did she.
- We didn’t dare leave paper towels, napkins or other such tissues out in the open, lest Iniki would shred them to tiny pieces scattered hither and yon. She learned quickly how to pull Kleenexes out of their boxes and rip them apart.
- Despite predictions otherwise, she became a lap kitty for me quickly. Many football games I watched from my recliner also had Iniki either sleeping on my lap or seemingly watching the game.
- Iniki could relax in almost any position. She learned quickly how warm and cozy a space heater could be in the wintertime…
- She was a playful kitty, right into her almost-old age. Until a few days before she got fatally sick, she played full-speed run-and-chase games with Emmy. Before we got a bigger couch, she would chase a toy, tied to a fishing pole, around and around the couch with zest and determination.
- Perhaps her favorite toys were anything ring-shaped and 1-4 inches across. We had to hide rubber bands and women’s hair bands because she would grab them from any surface, or out of an open drawer, and carry them all over the house. Unfortunately, sometimes she would eat them (usually resulting in a pukefest). Her favorite toys were simple milk-jug rings, which she harmlessly swatted and carried all over the house, before depositing them in her food dish. Every day, we had to clear multiple milk-jug rings out of her food bowl. Sometimes she would drop such a toy in her water bowl, fish it out, then toss it in there again for more splashy fun.
- We all love frozen custard from Rusty Rasmussen’s “Custard Factory” shop, and that included Iniki. I once fed her a few drops of melted custard out of a spoon to see if she liked it. Needless to say, she absolutely loved the stuff. This started years of vociferous pleading on her part when I would arrive home with some in a cup.
- Iniki had a bedtime tuck-in routine for her people. She visited Elke and me in bed almost daily, no matter when we were there. She would leap into the bed with considerable force for a small cat, lying down on me for several minutes of petting, rubbing and scratching with her characteristically very loud purr. Still purring like a chain saw, she then would walk over to Elke and head-butt her, getting more attention before lying down next to us (sometimes for hours). She spent a great deal of time sleeping with (or on) the kids in their beds too.
- She also had a shower-time routine for us–me in particular. After many showers, she would come into the bathroom and walk all around the floor, bathrub edge and a wooden chair, looking at me and squeaking for attention. Once dressed, I would sit in that chair and put her on my lap, where she crouched contentedly for 2-20 minutes of petting, scratching and rubbing–sometimes purring so intensely that spray flew from her nose.
- Often, with Elke in the office and trying to concentrate on her work, Iniki and Emmy would sit on either side of her, awaiting a snack of hair-ball ointment. After a few minutes of this scene, Elke would give in and hold out the tube in one hand and a finger on the other, each with a gob of the stuff for their simultaneous consumption. While Emmy tentatively and delicately licked her dose, Iniki ravenously wolfed it down and begged for more, sometimes swatting Elke with her paw to get her attention. She was a very insistent and bossy kitty when she wanted to be–but always in a cute and amusing way.
- It wasn’t just the salad bowl. She would curl up into almost any similarly sized, circular or ring-shaped object, such as a Halloween wreath (top photo) or basket.
- Iniki was the “lickiest” cat I ever had, by far. She considered people to be lollipops or popsicles, frequently kissing us on our hands, arms or even faces with that rough, wet little tongue. She was a very affectionate kitty this way, and gave us all many wet kisses on a daily basis.
- A subset of this “licky” habit was a strong fascination with the taste of female human feet–not male, but female. Whether Elke, Donna or visitors, she quite often licked a woman’s feet and even gently chewed her toes–much to the surprise and ticklish amazement of the subjects. Told you this cat had some eccentricities!
- If anything got Iniki excited as much as someone opening a package of shrimp, it was bringing in green grass for her to eat. She would wait by the back door, meowing inaudibly but quite visibly through the glass, then going into ecstatic hysterics when one of us would show her grass we were picking for her consumption. Upon one of us walking back in with the grass in hand, she would follow back and forth, squealing and begging, sometimes even leaping toward that hand, before wolfing down the offering a blade at a time.
- Being in rural Oklahoma, scorpions sometimes get inside. She was a fairly effective scorpion-control agent. She knew how to pound them to death without getting stung through her fur. When we found a beaten-up, dead scorpion in the house, we knew who did it. Her work likely spared our bare feet a few painful stings.
- Unlike most kitties, Iniki didn’t mind lying around on her back. She didn’t want to be held that way, but she often could be found sprawled out on the carpet, feet in the air, body turned this way or that.
- Iniki had all her claws and enjoyed spontaneous sprints through the house. Those earned her the nickname “Velcro kitty” for the sound of her clawed feet racing across the carpet.
- Like some dogs, Iniki could be trained. My favorite trick was to make her stand on two feet and stretch the full length of her body vertically, reaching way up high for treats, which I would drop in her gaping mouth while she grasped my hand. I regret not getting a higher-resolution photo of her doing this, and not teaching her more tricks while she still was young. She was a very alert and intelligent cat.
Photo by Donna Edwards
And now, friends, everything above is simply…gone, just like that. This house seems so empty, quiet and starkly different just by the absence of an 11-pound ball of black fur. We people are grieving a lot. Even Emmy, always somewhat aloof toward Iniki, acted clingy and confused for a few days, and still seeks attention more than usual.
Iniki was for the last 10 years my constant home companion, just about always within arm’s reach. She was creature comfort for me through the loss of both my parents, my buddy when no one else was home. I miss her great big personality, her regal grace, the nightly purr fests, a tap on the shoulder when she wanted a taste. I think she had a good life with us.
We all miss Iniki enormously. That’s because Iniki wasn’t just a cat…she was a loyal friend, warm and furry comforter, entertainer extraordinaire, and above all, an unconditionally loving companion. “Niki”–you blessed us so much with your presence in this home. We were honored to love and spoil you the past decade, and to give you the good life that all pets deserve. Eat all the raw shrimp, frozen custard, green grass, and Special K you want in heaven. We’ll see you again there someday.
R.I.P. Iniki the Cat
The horrible events at two schools in Moore, OK have brought the topic of tornado safety to the front lines of national talk, and for good reason.
As always on this BLOG, these are my personal thoughts, not necessarily those of my employer.
Are there guidelines for schools to plan for tornadoes?
Absolutely, and here they are. Those are general guidelines, though, because every school has different needs and logistics. It cannot be a single solution that works for every one.
How do schools best get the warning?
As advocated in the link above, the way to get warnings direct from the National Weather Service, no middlemen, is by weather radio. Weather radios have been offered or distributed to schools nationwide. The weather radio needs to have working batteries at all times in case power is out, and needs to be set for the county. Private-sector smart-phone apps can be very useful too, because they can narrow down the warning to your GPS location inside a county. However, phone apps only work if cell and Internet service is working. If the cell towers are down or overloaded, your app might be undependable. So for highest awareness, you still need a working, battery-tested weather radio.
What do we do with schoolchildren when severe weather threatens…lock down and shelter in place? Send them home?
It depends. Sorry, but that’s the best answer. It’s a messy issue, because in some cases, kids are safer at school than at home (if they live in a mobile home, apartment or dilapidated, substandard house construction). In other cases, the schools have grossly inadequate and unsafe shelter and are better off sending kids home with a tornado watch. This should be a local community decision, not one-size-fits-all policy for a big area. Second-guess all you want about what happened in Moore, but…
There is no such thing as guaranteed safety inside a tornado!
Shouldn’t all schools in “Tornado Alley” have safe rooms? Shouldn’t the federal government require that?
Yes and no.
I strongly, strongly, strongly support the notion that every school in the most tornado-prone areas has an engineered tornado shelter! It should be done to the greatest extent school districts can prioritize budgets in that direction. However, let’s acknowledge that realistically,
1. These are austere times–as such, it won’t happen at all existing schools for a variety of reasons, budgetary and logistically; and
2. Until it does, every school without such shelters needs to have a situational plan.
Schools cannot wait for the rules to change. They need to plan for their situation as it exists now while trying to secure safer shelter for the future. That’s why the above linked school page exists–to help schools to prepare, wherever they are in the process.
Personally, I am against any sweeping federal regulation because that’s a mindless, heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all approach, typically with unfunded mandates. Regulatory burdens can hurt as much as help. To wit (from this ABC story):
Moore has been trying to get federal money to subsidize residents who want to buy safe rooms. The city expressed its frustration in February on the city website, saying, “We’ve found that the FEMA requirements and their interpretations seem to be a constantly moving target, more so with the new wrinkles.”
Let’s set aside the non-trivial givens of red tape and inefficiency. Even without those, a national, one-size-fits-all federal mandate wouldn’t work well unless all schools are identical. They’re obviously not. Such regulations would be enforced by distant, detached and unaware Washington bureaucrats who are beholden to politics instead of people, and who are invariably ignorant of local community needs and situations. The rules need to be state and local–general at the state level and specific at the local level.
No two schools are the same; and all disasters are local. As such, so are the solutions. Each community needs to decide its own priorities and act accordingly. The proper federal role here is a supportive one, such as with engineering guidelines for safe-room construction, broadcasting to weather radios, offering safety information, and providing the timely and excellent forecasts and warnings that are improving by the year.
Are there well-prepared schools?
You bet! There are too many to name, so I’ll use the example I know best. In Norman, the elementary school my kids attended (Washington) used to have no reinforced sheltering of any sort, except for some interior bathrooms that might have been adequate for EF2-EF3 tornadoes. The school got overcrowded and needed expansion in the early 2000s. Part of that addition included an interior classroom with “safe room” standard concrete walls and ceiling, steel doors and no exterior windows.
The morning after the Enterprise AL tornado (which killed 9 kids in a school hallway), the Washington principal and I did interviews with CNN to showcase some of what could be done, including a look at that reinforced classroom. I only can hope that inspired some school admins to consider doing the same thing. Even a “safe room” might not handle an EF5; but very little can. While they are well-engineered, I still would not want to be in one if it is hit by a dump truck angling down at over 100 mph. Fortunately the odds of that worst-case scenario are extraordinarily tiny.
But what about the worst tornadoes, EF4s and EF5s?
The good news:
1. Over 98% of tornadoes are not EF4 or 5.
2. Only a minority of the damage area of rated EF4 and EF5 tornadoes has those extreme levels of damage. This was true even for the Moore, OK tornadoes in 1999 and 2013.
To be inside of an EF5 damage swath is a grave misfortune of the worst order. It’s no consolation to the families of those third graders at Plaza Tower Elementary, but there is nowhere safe except outside the tornado. Even underground has some risk. If the news reports are right, seven of those kids drowned when a basement or below ground-level area of some sort flooded, likely due to busted water pipes. As a parent, this is just heartbreaking.
Where are the best places to be in case of a violent tornado?
1. Out of its way.
2. Underground steel or concrete shelter.
3. In an engineered, above-ground “safe room“.
4. Lowest level, center part, smallest room of a very well-built structure.