Review of “The Man Who Caught the Storm” by Brantley Hargrove

Not normally motivated to post book reviews on my BLOG, I’ll make this a special exception. Via the supercell on its cover, Elke and I spotted Brantley Hargrove’s new tome, “The Man Who Caught the Storm“, on sale at Sam’s Club cheaper than Amazon or any other online outlet, and snapped it right up. As of this writing, she hasn’t read it yet and is undecided on doing so; she took Tim’s death (especially the gruesomeness of it) rather hard. However, I finished it a few days ago, and my shamelessly verbose reaction follows.

BACKGROUND
Before plunging into the review, some background is necessary. I am absolutely a biased reviewer, no question. The book’s subject, Tim Samaras, had been a friend and colleague of mine since we met on a chase, in 1996. Tim and Elke had known each other from their Colorado chase days, as both had lived in and near Lakewood before she and I married.

Excerpt from my memorial tribute to Tim:

    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 [a] 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.

Until I got to know Tim a little better in the 2000s, I learned much from Elke about his high character, integrity, and passion for those untamed Great Plains skies. She also had chased with the early NatGeo teams, and was (along with Al Pietrycha, Christina Hannon and the late Matt Biddle) part of the truncated group who went on to intercept the Siren, WI tornado, while Tim, Carsten and the rest hung back west in simmering frustration.

My fondest memories with Tim were after chases, including during an otherwise meteorologically moribund week with T.W.I.S.T.EX., when we observed a few wet supercells in difficult terrain, Bruce Lee and Cathy Finley struck a deer and had to limp their vehicle home, and we briefly encountered one tornado. That was on 10 May 2008, in the canyon of pines that lines US-259 north of Broken Bow, in far southeastern Oklahoma. [This was the same day as the EF4 wedge that permanently destroyed Picher, about 200 miles to the north]. At first unseen to us, our much smaller and weaker tornado developed directly over the leading Chevy Cobalt that I was driving, with Tony Laubach as passenger. The vortex then whooshed off into the tall conifers and strengthened somewhat. We barely saw it; Tim and the armada behind us got a somewhat better look.

Earlier that day, at the pre-chase meeting and briefing in OKC, Rich Thompson (who also was with the project that week) and I advised Tim against chasing into the heavy forest and steep terrain of the winding Ouachita Mountains roadways, but unlike us, Tim never had been there. That was his target area, and he was sticking to it. He later admitted that was a mistake; fortunately the tornado was a transient wisp where we were before it broke trees to the east, and we all had plenty of talk and laughs about the experience over food and drink that night in Paris, TX.

Elke and I had chased separately from Tim’s crew on 9 June 2005, starting in different states and never being in contact, while seeing tornadoes with an amazing supercell near Hill City and Stockton, KS. Somehow we ended up at the same eatery at the same time, along with several other good storm-observing friends who had chased with neither us nor Tim, yet found each other in one restaurant in Hays (photo below). Those post-tornado steak dinners with storm-satiated friends make the best kind of “chaser convergence.” We all had a fantastic couple of hours swapping stories and watching videos (and admiring Carsten’s thoroughly mud-encased chase vehicle) until the place closed. These and a few other post-chase feasts are the memories of Tim and his crews that I’ll cherish most.


          Photo courtesy Vickie Doswell

BOOK REVIEW

I hadn’t read a satisfying biography of field scientists since “No Apparent Danger” by Victoria Bruce: a reasonably well-written story of the geologists who studied Nevado del Ruiz, a volcano that blasted six of them (and three tourists) to death in its summit crater. Like that book, “The Man Who Caught the Storm” was written rather adroitly by a journalist, though Bruce earned an advanced degree in her science before going into journalism. Hargrove holds no meteorology degree, but like Tim with his probes, managed to build a credible, accurate and compelling product, regardless.

ORGANIZATION: Hargrove organized the story sequentially, which I find appropriate and refreshing. He started from the start, and finished with the finish. Stories that start in the middle or end, and jump back to the beginning, or hop to and fro like a frog on a hot plate, annoy the hell out of me; I am a logical and chronological thinker. The Bruce book irritated me by starting with part of the deadly eruption story, cliffhanging that, and proceeding with chronology for a long time before returning to the climactic event and its aftermath. That may follow some lit-school, paint-by-numbers template for biographical writing, but I don’t care for it.

Hargrove served the narrative best by taking it as it really came. Going in, most know exactly how this story ends, and it’s not pleasant at all, so why start with that? This book doesn’t, thankfully. The reader is best served with highly interesting insights into Tim’s rich life, and his relentless passion to learn and understanding what I have referred to as “the smorgasbord of atmospheric violence” for decades. The story rightly documents and commemorates Tim’s life before its unavoidable obligation to cover his death. Hargrove did his due diligence in obviously thorough research for the story, offering many facts about Tim that I didn’t know, and that only someone could offer who was as close as Tim’s wonderful wife Kathy, or even Tony, Ed Grubb, Anton Seimon, and others who spent far more time with him on chases.

WRITING QUALITY: Other than being a little too enamored with the word “bolus”, a weak analogy arising from medical context, I found the writing to be keen, clean, well-flowing, and never dull. It could have used fewer passive verbs, but the exciting subject matter overcame that very minor flaw. Some writers of scientific topics avoid terminology and “big words” out of the mistaken assumption that the audience for such material consists largely of floundering ignoramuses and/or the primitively educated. Wrong! Even if that were the case, such an approach doesn’t help the reader become less ignorant!

The author’s relatively rich vocabulary and mostly skillful deployment of phrases lend themselves well to a story such as this. Hargrove clearly is quite advanced for a young writer, especially in this day and age. I know that’s not saying much, given the broader Millennial desecration of our language with horrendous skills in the fundamentals of grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, sentence structure, and compositional flow. All in all, this author helps to ameliorate his generation’s otherwise wretched writing reputation!

STORY and REPRESENTATION: When a biography teaches a reader who knew the subject things he didn’t know, that’s a measure of success. This did. Tim’s life story was even more textured and colorful than I had imagined. That includes his absolutely fascinating childhood and early adulthood.

The author poignantly depicted Tim’s struggles to be accepted by a science where the letters “Ph.D.” matter more than substance of the person and his work. Having deployed TOTO myself as a NSSL student employee in the 1980s, being a formally published scientist and journal editor without a Ph.D., and being familiar with several of the scientists discussed, I understand how Tim’s reserved but intense defensiveness must have come about, especially now that Hargrove has revealed some of the “inside” stories of those field programs.

I can relate to Tim’s fiercely independent nature, and his drive to do things his own creative and innovative way, free of the shackles of rigid structure, while still striving through his work ethic and benevolent nature to make meaningful contributions to the same science fostering an aura of leash-restrained conformity and sometimes militaristic inflexibility. As Rich, Elke and I watched the Stratford wedge on 15 May 2003 from a safe eastern angle, little did we know that it nearly had consumed Tim and Anton. I only found out later, through discussions on the private Chase Forecast Discussion Group (CFDG) listserv, of which both were members at various times. That was a seminal event in shaping Tim’s subsequent tornadic endeavors, and rightfully is depicted as such.

Hargrove depicts Tim’s wizardry with gadgets as legendary, and that’s the truth. Once in my limited set of chases with T.W.I.S.T.EX., I saw Tim fold himself into the crannies of one of the Cobalts and quickly repair some obscure electronic problem that baffled everyone else. Given that, I was especially glad to see anecdotes about quick fixes to busted equipment that saved the chase day, portraying Tim with considerable accuracy as a sort of storm-chasing MacGyver.

Naturally, the chapter on Manchester focuses heavily on the HITPR deployment that recorded the largest tornadic pressure drop (to date) of 100 mb, and its aftermath that brought fame, respect and a mixture of beneficial and unwanted attention to Tim. One small flaw: nowhere did I see mention that the record was surpassed by Amos Magliocco and Eric Nguyen a few years later, in a mistaken penetration of the Tulia tornado. The formal EJSSM paper documenting the Tulia event is found here in PDF and in HTML form. As editor for that manuscript, I specifically recruited Tim Samaras as one of the reviewers due to his technical expertise with instrumentation, not at all concerned that Tim would get territorial about “his” record. Indeed, he didn’t, and the paper benefited greatly from Tim’s review and close scrutiny of the instrumental specifications and performance.

Near the end, Tim’s “last ride” was handled in a gripping yet matter-of-fact manner, not overdramatized at all. I appreciated that, as a wonderful departure from the overblown norm of storm-chasing popular literature. In the thoughtful, diligent and unfailingly considerate Gabe Garfield, the author picked the right guy with whom to work for much of that difficult part of the story.

My only lasting gripe with this book is small, but memorable: the description of Tim as the “greatest storm chaser”. What does that mean, by whose authority is it decided, and what are the consistent and verifiable standards? There is no “greatest storm chaser”. That’s the only foray into needless hype in the whole thing. While few doubt that Tim was one of the best from a strategic and safety perspective, the brutally honest reality is that an unsafe error in strategy somewhere between him and Carl cost their lives in that big subvortex south of El Reno. Hargrove does tell the story of those moments, to the extent they can be known, in a measured, careful way that can lead the reader to the same conclusion: excellent chasers who made one fatal mistake. That’s the truth, too. Still, “greatest storm chaser” is like that tiny pebble inside the hiker’s sock that manifests a time or two across the miles: too little to be worth the effort to undress and remove, but there to yield pointless nuisance just enough to remember.

Aside from that unfortunate glitch, one of the aspects I most appreciated about the presentation was its overall levelheadedness, an absence of melodramatic embellishment. By its very nature, based only on known facts, the demise of my colleagues in that tornado-demolished Cobalt was horrible and dramatic. That much I gathered in the days following the tragedy, in surveying the scene first-hand and talking with others who also were out there looking for the cameras, and then later, conversations Elke and I had with Doug Gerten, over a lunch at the Green Chile Kitchen with Elke, Gene Rhoden, and others.

Those events didn’t need embellishing, interpretative interpolation. Nor did the other amazing chases Tim led. They speak for themselves. It was as if Tim were still guiding the author in spirit, in establishing book’s tone. While still alive, Tim likely would have been rather bashful and hesitant to have a story such as this written about him, but if one insisted on doing so, it would have had to be representative, truthful, and not dramatic beyond the character of events themselves.

Hargrove showed other writers that captivating factual writing is indeed possible. That should be the default approach for writers on this subject! Alas, most fall into the trap of thrill-a-minute Evel Knievel portrayals, and grotesque bastardization of scientific concepts under the false notion that doing so makes it more interesting. Instead, doing so reveals fundamental flaws in the writer, in the form of limited prowess in the art of accurately compelling portrayal. I can wave this book in their faces and shout, “See, it can be done!”

Truly I say, no one should have to praise Hargrove for building a biography how ought to be normal and standard. Yet I do, because he does set an example here that should be followed — and yes, I have no doubt more biographies of leading field scientists and chasers will appear, whether constructed by him or others. Let this part of my review be a note of thanks to the author for keeping it real.

I also thank Hargrove for his gracious, dignified and kind treatment of Tim’s family — both in the tome and in person. While I wasn’t privy to their discussions, nor ever contacted nor consulted in any way (and that’s fine, by the way…my role in Tim’s story is that of a bit player at best), I know Kathy would not have consented to contribute the thoughts that she did, had she been treated with anything but utmost respect. Having come to know Kathy through Elke, since Tim passed, I appreciate that.

RECOMMENDATION: Read the book. It’s good.

Jason Witten: Doing It All the Right Way

Rumored as likely for a couple weeks, the story verified yesterday: Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys tight end, Mr. Dependable, Number 82, retired after a team-record 15 seasons. Observing well-known Blue Star tight ends like Billy Joe DuPree and Doug Cosbie as a kid, and Jay Novacek on the dynastic Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, I didn’t imagine we would see one arrive to outperform them all, by a large margin. I’ve been watching Cowboys games since I was a little kid in the mid-’70s, and can assure you he’s among the top few greatest players among the many greats ever to wear the star.

Rightly, fans, other players and coaches alike stand in starstruck admiration of Witten’s on-field accomplishments, including team records for games played (239), games started (229), receptions (1152), receiving yards (12,488), and a team and NFL record for receptions in a game by a tight end (18, against a team he tormented often, the Giants). He ranks first in NFL history for tight-end receptions in a season (110), second all-time in the NFL in single-game receptions by a tight end (18), and fourth for any position. It seemed like Witten would play forever; the big man in the #82 jersey, trotting on the field every game, was so dependable and easy to take for granted.

While these stats amaze us in and of themselves, they hint at a greater truth: such accomplishments happen only through a combination of avoidance of severe injury, with both great training and good luck involved, and unwavering dedication to the craft. Remembering Witten for his iron-man achievements in a violent sport, I can’t even fathom playing just two weeks after a busted jaw — the intervening game being the only one he ever missed — nor playing the season opener on a still-healing spleen just a few weeks after it got lacerated in a tremendous preseason hit. Of course, there was the hallmark play of his career: where two Eagles players slammed into him at once, bouncing off of Witten in different directions while his helmet flew in another, and he just kept running, for a 53-yard gain. Add in all the selfless, behind-the-scenes blocking prowess that made him the NFL’s most complete tight end, and his longevity rises from remarkable to astounding.

That all this deserved respect and accolades are showered on Witten — a man who is humble and still somewhat uncomfortable in the spotlight despite being one of the best all-time players on tradition-soaked America’s Team — is no coincidence. Witten is a man of strong Christian faith, and the Christian worldview clearly informs and guides his life and his work. In justifying his drive to excel and his unsurpassed work ethic, he cites one of my favorite verses, Colossians 3:23; “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,…”. This is a principle I’ve long strived to apply to severe-storms meteorology, and recognized it early in Witten’s football work, long before knowing he also specifically followed the same verse. As such, and knowing any player who earned the famously cranky Bill Parcells’ respect so early in his career must be doing something right, I became a Witten fan fast.

Many words exist to describe what he brought to the Cowboys and the sport at top performance level, and here are some:

      Intelligence

      Skill

      Toughness

      Integrity

      Trustworthiness

      Professionalism

      Authenticity

      Leadership

      Dependability

      Savvy

      Work ethic

      Excellence

      Giving

      Honor

Yes, honor…he gave it, he received it, and he earned it, on and off the field. No question, he will have a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the next 5-6 years. In 2012, Witten won the NFL’s highest humanitarian award, the Walter Payton Man of the Year, for his combination of playing excellence and community service. His charitable foundations and causes included kids’ fitness and the struggle to stop domestic violence — the latter a poignant point after spending part of his childhood around his wife-beating, alcoholic father. Witten’s charitable involvement isn’t for show — it is authentic, deeply personal and meaningful. He is even more devoted as a father and husband than he was to football.

Witten has earned every last bit of the respect he has gotten and will get. Thinking of his career makes me glad and thankful to be a fan of his and the Cowboys, the only regret being that he couldn’t get a Super Bowl ring to cap it off. For good reason, many coaches on his team have told new players: If you want to succeed, find someone who does it the right way, all the time, and follow his example…and that guy is #82.

Witten never, ever let his fans down, on or off the field. I can’t express how rare and refreshing that is, and how grateful I am to have followed his career with the Cowboys. His retirement press-conference speech showed once more the class and honor we have come to expect, respect and admire from Jason Witten.

Elke and I watched his classy and heartfelt retirement speech while eating lunch at Qdoba yesterday…

As a sportsman and a man outside sports, Jason Witten has been top-caliber, and he will succeed in TV and beyond at whatever he does, because he both played the game and conducts his life the right way. “I relied on grit…the secret is in the dirt. I have to be willing to go out and earn it.” Earn it, he did. Success wasn’t handed to him on a silver spoon. He rose from disadvantage and busted his ass hard to succeed, while also honoring those who helped him along that journey. Here’s a story about Witten’s most effective receiving play and how he made it so, exemplifying his playing style and work ethic.

“I hope I made you proud to be a Dallas Cowboys fan.” You did, Jason, and you do. May God’s blessings keep shining upon you in your TV gig and beyond.

Reflections on a Quarter Century of Storm Forecasting

As of last week, I have been forecasting and researching severe storms (in SELS-Kansas City and its Norman successor) for 25 years, not counting prior time at NHC and NSSL. That’s 1/4 century of living the dream of a tornado-obsessed kid. Much has transpired professionally and personally in that time span, most of it decidedly for the better. The only negative is that I’m a quarter-century older. Give how little I knew then compared to now, and how little I knew about how little I knew, maybe the geezers of my youth were right, in that youth is wasted on the young.

The science of severe-weather prediction has advanced markedly. More is understood about the development and maintenance of severe storms than ever before. Numerical models also are better than ever, yet still riddled with flaws known to forecasters that belie their hype as panaceas. Most weather media, social media weather pundits outside front-line forecasters, and far too many Twitter-active pure researchers and grad students exhibit naivete and ignorance about both the flaws of models in applied use, and the still-urgent need for humans in forecasting (yes, forecasting, not just so-called “decision support services” a.k.a. DSS).

Fortunately, most of those who actually do the job — the experienced severe-storms-prediction specialists who are my colleagues — know better, and incorporate both the science and art (yes, art!) of meteorology into forecasting, to varying extents. Yet pitfalls lie in our path in forms of several interrelated ideas:

    * Automation: Even if the human forecast is better at a certain time scale, at what point does the bureaucracy (beholden to budget, not excellence) decide the cost-benefit ratio is worth losing some forecast quality to replace humans with bots that don’t take sick leave, join unions, nor collect night differential? I wrote in much more detail about this two years ago, and that discussion touches upon some of what I am re-emphasizing below. Please go back and read that if you haven’t already.

    * Duty creep with loss of diagnostic-understanding time: Cram more nickel-and-dime, non-meteorological side duties into the same time frames with the same staffing levels, a social-media nickel this year, a video-briefing dime the next, and something must give. In my experience, that is analysis and understanding, which in an ironically self-fulfilling way, stagnates human forecast skill (and more importantly, sacrificing concentration and situational understanding) whilst allowing models to catch up. Knowing how bureaucracy works, I suspect this is by design.

    * Mission sidetracking – “DSS” including customized media and social-media services: I don’t deny the importance of DSS; in fact I support it! Outreach is good! Yet DSS should not be done by the full-time, front-line forecasters who ideally need to be laser-focused on meteorological understanding when on duty, and making forecasts the most excellent possible. DSS should be a separate and parallel staffing with social-science-trained specialists in outreach everywhere DSS is required. Otherwise, quality above what the models can provide (which still is possible, especially on Day-1 and day-2, and in complex phenomena like severe and winter storms) will be lost prematurely and unnecessarily.

    * Loss of focus — see the last two bullets: A growing body of psychological literature resoundingly debunks the notion of “multitasking”. We lose focus and delay or dilute accomplishment when concentration is broken and interruptions occur. Management should be focusing on reducing, not increasing, distractions and interruptions on the forecast desk. Forecast quality and human lives are at stake.

    * De-emphasis of science in service: Physical and conceptual understanding matter in the preparation of consistently high-quality forecasts — especially on the complicated, multi-variate area of severe local storms. These are not day-5 dewpoint grids, and this is why my workplace has published more scientific research than any other publicly funded forecasting office, by far. Tornadoes, severe hail and thunderstorm winds are highly dependent on time and space overlaps of multiple kinds of forcings that models still do not often handle well, partly because of the “garbage in, garbage out” phenomenon (input observations are not dense enough), partly due to imperfect model physics and assimilation methods. Severe-storms specialists must have both self-motivation and continued support from above to understand the science — not only by getting training and reading papers, but by writing papers and performing research!

    * Model-driven temptation to complacency: This is a form of Snellman’s meteorological cancer. I wrote about some of these topics here 13 years ago in far more detail, under the umbrella of ensemble forecasting. Please read that discussion! I see no need so far to amend any of it, except to add thoughts about focus and concentration (above). If forecasters don’t think they can improve on a model, even if they really can, or just don’t feel like making effort to do so amidst other demands for time, they’ll just regurgitate the output, at which point their jobs can (and probably should!) be automated.

    * Meddling in the mission by distant, detached bureaucratic ignoramuses. Schism between upper-management assumptions and real front-line knowledge is a common theme across all governmental and corporate bureaucracies, and is nothing new across generations. In my arena, it manifests as lack of understanding and appreciation for the difficulty and complexity of the work, and in the difference in respecting the absolutely urgent need for direct, devoted, focused human involvement. The very first people with whom policy-makers should discuss severe-storms-prediction issues are the front-line severe-storms forecasters — that is, if knowledge and understanding matter at all in making policy.

At this stage of my career, I’m neither an embittered old cynic nor a tail-wagging puppy panting with naive glee. I never was the latter and I intend not to turn into the former. Instead I observe and study developments in a level-headed way, as both an idealist and a realist, assess them with reason and logic, and report about them with brutal honesty. I doing so, I’ll say that there is cause for both optimism and pessimism at this critical juncture. I’ve covered the pitfalls (pessimism) already.

How can optimism be realized? It’s straightforward, though not easy. We must continue to grow the science, emphasize the human element of physical and conceptual understanding (including the still-important role of human understanding and the art of meteorology) in such complex and multivariate phenomena, use ever-improving (but still highly imperfect!) models as tools and not crutches, study and learn every single day, minimize distractions/disruptions, and most of all, focus on and fight for excellence!

I’m now decidedly closer to retirement than to the start of my career. Yet you can count on this: you won’t see me coast, nor go FIGMO, nor be merely “good enough for government work”! Such behavior is absolutely unacceptable, pathologically lazy, morally wrong, and completely counter to my nature. The passion for atmospheric violence still burns hot as ever.

Excellence is not synonymous with perfection, and the latter is impossible anyway. I will issue occasional bad forecasts, and I hope, far more great ones. Regardless of the fickle vagaries of individual events, I must start each new day for what it is — a different challenge ready to be tackled, compartmentalized unto itself, not the same as the great or crappy forecast of the previous shift. I must settle for nothing less than consistency of excellence in performance, lead the next generation by example in effort, and advance the science further. I’ll be pouring the best reasoning I know into each forecast, even if that is necessarily imperfect and incomplete. I’ll be doing research and writing more papers. I’ll be educating and speaking and writing and raising awareness on severe-storms topics, trying to pass understanding on to both users of the forecasts and forecasters of the future.

I’m paid well enough, and the taxpayer deserves no less than excellence in return for his/her investment in me. That is my driven purpose in the years remaining in full-time severe-weather forecasting.

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