Former KCCI TV chief meteorologist John McLaughlin speaks about reading weather radar during a “Severe Storm Saturday” presentation Saturday at New Way Ford in Coon Rapids.
Former KCCI TV chief meteorologist John McLaughlin speaks about reading weather radar during a “Severe Storm Saturday” presentation Saturday at New Way Ford in Coon Rapids.

COON RAPIDS

Not many car dealerships host severe-weather events.

But New Way Ford in Coon Rapids just offered its second, featuring former KCCI TV chief meteorologist John McLaughlin, who grew up in the area and whose family owns the dealership, and two storm chasers.

“Severe Storm Saturday” covered phone apps that anyone can use to follow storms in real time, as well as the work of storm chasers who provide live storm updates “under the radar.”

In addition to McLaughlin, the presentation featured professional storm chasers Ben McMillan, a Pella native who helped found the Iowa Storm Chasing Network and worked as the primary storm chaser for KCCI, and Nathan Moore, who is based in Kearney, Nebraska, and owns StormViewLive.com, which offers live storm broadcasts.

McLaughlin discussed two phone apps, RadarScope for iPhone, which costs $9.99, and PYKL3 Radar for Android, which costs $11.99. They allow users to select a location and see storms on the radar as they are happening.

A variety of information — wind speed, velocity, debris, storm location and more — available through the radar apps allows anyone with a smartphone to keep an eye on weather in their area — so when they hear “thunderstorm warning,” they can get more information about what that means for them.

“All this data is available on your telephone now so you can look at it in real time,” McLaughlin said.

Typically on a weather radar, areas that are green, or cool colors, indicate conditions that are coming toward the radar, while areas that are red, or warm colors, indicate conditions moving away from the radar.

The point at which the two colors meet is where air begins to rotate — sometimes causing a tornado.

“In school talks, we say, ‘When green meets red, get under the bed,’” McLaughlin said. “That’s the rule of thumb.”

Radar programs also can indicate debris that has been moved by a storm — small buildings, for instance.

“In Iowa, it could be corn, beans, hay that’s been picked up and is spinning,” McLaughlin said. “That’s a helpful tool, because it tells people that this is serious. It’s not just rotation, but it’s moving debris around.

“It’s not just, ‘You’re interrupting my show.’ It’s, ‘We’re interrupting your show because someone’s roof is up in the air.’”

To practice with the weather apps, McLaughlin suggested, watch radar data for active storms throughout the country and compare what you see on your radar with warnings from the National Weather Service. And don’t chase a storm without plenty of information and a plan.

Iowa weather can be unpredictable, McLaughlin said.

“Our storms tend to be wrapped in rain,” he said — and brief tornadoes or those lower to the ground can be missed by radar. “It’s a little harder here in Iowa to pick out storms, compared to Oklahoma or Texas.”

And radar, for all the information it does offer, isn’t on the ground.

“That’s why we need the storm spotters and the storm chasers, to see what’s happening when we’re live, on the ground,” McLaughlin said. “Instead of just saying, ‘We see a tornado on the radar,’ we can say, ‘Storm spotters have confirmed what we saw on the radar.’”

McMillan and Moore both have professionally “chased storms” for years, passing on live film and updates to meteorologists who include the information in live coverage of storms.

That live coverage is unedited and can be raw and messy.

“When a disaster hits, ratings don’t matter anymore,” McMillan said.

Typically, professional storm chasers have — or should have — some sort of first-aid or search training.

“A lot of times, we’re the first ones on a scene,” Moore said.

That training also helps when storm chasers are the first ones calling in emergency responders — they can note that although a tornado hit a house, no one was in it and there isn’t a need for 50 firetrucks, as opposed to a more serious situation such as hospital being hit.

“Minutes count in these situations,” Moore said.

If you’re just in it for the thrill and aren’t necessarily contributing anything, reconsider — or at least stay out of the way, McMillan said.

And when you’re on the road quite a bit, a milkshake is a great source of quick energy, he added.

As dangerous as tornadoes can be, storm chasers typically can avoid them, McMillan said. Other factors — flooding in the road, other drivers, lightning — are more unpredictable and dangerous.

And there always needs to be a backup plan.

“It’s like a chess board,” McMillan said. “The storm’s gonna go where it’s gonna go, and we have to adapt. The hardest part of what I do is to know when to stop what I do.”

Attendees at the event Saturday received a free rain gauge. They’re welcome to set them up and share results on the New Way Ford Facebook page, McLaughlin said.

“Just don’t make up an amount or add your number to someone else’s to win,” he joked. “We see that a lot in the TV business — our hail is bigger than your hail.”

He added that New Way Ford likely will host similar weather events in the future.