'Storm Chasers': Capturing the April 27 whirlwind in 'Tornado Rampage 2011'
On Wednesday, April 27, according to the National Weather Service, Mississippi and Alabama experienced not one EF5 tornado, but three, striking Preston and Smithville, Miss., and Hacklesburg, Ala.
There were also several EF4 tornadoes, including one that ripped through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Ala.
EF5 represents the strongest tornado on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which uses the degree of damage to estimate wind speeds and the strength of the storm.
One of the fictional storm chasers in the 1996 thriller "Twister" referred to an EF5 (then called an F5) as, "The finger of God."
Among the many on the trail of these storms, and surveying the damage afterward, were the scientists and filmmakers of the reality hit "Storm Chasers," which was shooting its current season, set to debut this fall on Discovery.
The Sunday special features exclusive footage, along with perspectives drawn from meteorological experience and years of storm chasing.
In the fleet was Reed Timmer of TornadoVideos.net, a meteorologist who bankrolls his storm-chasing passion -- along with his specially designed chase vehicles, Dominator and the soon-to-be-finished Dominator II -- by appearing on the show and shooting tornado videos, including the one below, of one of the storms in Mississippi and Alabama on April 27.
Also on the trail of the tornadoes that day were "Storm Chasers" Sean Casey and Tim Samaras.
"I'm sitting in the middle of a field in South Dakota," Timmer tells Zap2it, calling in from the storm-chasing front lines, "but I'm not sure there are going to be storms. It could be a blue-sky bust today."
Regarding the above video, Timmer recalls, "That thing was crazy. The roar from that tornado, I've never heard in my entire 14 years of storm chasing. As it approached, we heard this continuous thunder and realized it was the roar of the tornado. We knew it was a unique one; it got rated EF5."
Casey says of the 2010 season, "It was the season of a lifetime, and one I hope to God I never have again."
Last year, Timmer and his crew got a shock when they visited the devastated town of Yazoo City, Miss. They even helped rescue a man with a spinal injury from the wreckage of his home.
But when asked to compare the 2011 season -- which is ongoing -- to 2010, Timmer says, "There's really no comparison. Last year, there were several damaging tornadoes, but in terms of the number, it's not even close.
"April this year was the most active April in recorded history for the U.S. There were over 500 tornadoes, and the closest second was, I believe, 267 tornadoes in 1974. That just puts it into perspective, that the second most tornadoes in April were half of what it was this year.
"Having that outbreak on the 27th, in a similar area -- which is more populated than we're used to in the Plains -- it was a helpless feeling, because you knew there were going to be deadly tornadoes, but you didn't know where.
"I've never seen anything [like it] in my whole storm-chasing career, where all the parameters for tornadoes were maxed out over such a large area."
While the lore of "Tornado Alley" -- generally defined as an area incorporating parts of Texas, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Ohio -- is well known, Timmer is not surprised that severe storms have hit the South.
"There's an area in the South," he says, "that stretches from Arkansas across Mississippi to Alabama and into Georgia, that is nicknamed 'Dixie Alley.' It's an area of heightened tornado frequency. They get a lot of winter-into-early-spring tornado outbreaks there.
"While an outbreak of this magnitude has only been seen a handful of times in this century, they do get significant tornado outbreaks down there. We chased one two weeks before the big super-outbreak; saw a bunch of tornadoes, none of which were EF5, but they were strong tornadoes still."
While Timmer says Sunday's show focuses on videos of the April 27 outbreak and the science behind it, he assures "Storm Chasers" fans that the new season will still have amazing footage and science, helped out by the new Dominator II and other upgraded equipment.
Timmer has also made a personal safety upgrade, important when you're navigating dirt roads, farm fields and tornado-disaster sites.
"I have retired the sandals," he says, "so I do have steel-toed shoes on now."