Steve Sosna, braving the most dangerous storms

Steve Sosna, braving the most dangerous storms

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Oh, the weather outside is frightful. And for most of us, that means battening down the hatches, pouring a glass of wine and figuring out what shows to binge-watch. But for this week’s Portrait, Steve Sosna, inclement weather means he’s donning an extra layer and running into the heart of whatever Mother Nature has to offer. As an NBC10 weatherman, this is the kind of stuff he’s prepared for. He also happens to be married to last week’s Portrait, Jonathan D. Lovitz.

PGN: Jonathan says you’re from an even smaller town than he is.

SS: Yes, I was born in Sellersville, Pa. It sounds like it’s in the middle of PA but it’s actually in Bucks County. I grew up in Lansdale, which is an exit on the Northeast extension — the epitome of suburbia, strip malls and all.

PGN: What’s the earliest memorable weather event you can recall?

SS: It’s actually fascinating. My mom and my dad and I were in a car coming home from a funeral. We were on U.S. 202 and we were stopped at a traffic light and a bolt of lightning hit right next to our car. I saw and felt the sizzle and the explosive sound of it. And that was the moment I was hooked on exploring weather. From that time on, [during] every thunderstorm, I’d kneel by my window and watch the storm for hours. And that spawned an interest in snow and rain and anything extreme. Meteorologists don’t get into weather for the nice days. We get into it because we love the crazy stuff.

PGN: What was your favorite class in school?

SS: I’m a geek, so I loved geometry and trigonometry classes. I liked the way all the numbers worked because basically weather — the atmosphere — is a river, right? A river of air, and we calculate the movement of it by the numbers. So I was fascinated that everything you see going on outside is really just numbers at work. But I think my favorite class was an English literature class. I went to a Catholic school and religion is very nice if you like to color inside the lines, but my English teacher, Mr. P, always encouraged us to think deeper about life. He was also my cross-country coach. He was instrumental in molding some of my early outlooks on life and taught me to question everything, including religion. Realizing that I was gay in a Catholic high school was not an easy thing; living in a white-collar, cookie-cutter suburb and dealing with the gay guilt I felt, he helped me realize I could question faith and its teachings.

PGN: What did you study in school?

SS: I joke that I knew I wanted to study meteorology from the time I came out of the womb. I think I was predestined for it. I started doing weather for the morning announcements in second grade. It was the start of my broadcasting career! In high school, I was a little on the shy side but my friends egged me on and one friend, Ed, from AV club, even built me a green screen so I could do weathercasts on our high-school station! I did a little of everything. I was on the chess team, cross country, and I worked three jobs while in school.

PGN: What did the folks do?

SS: They had very blue-collar jobs. My dad worked at a manufacturing plant working with pharmaceuticals. He’s one of the hardest-working people that I know. He’d go in at 6 a.m. and sometimes come home at 7 that night. My mom — what hasn’t she done?! She’s ranged the spectrum from bus driver to EMT training, a massage therapist, secretarial work … My dad had one job his entire life and my mother had the rest.

PGN: Despite that, I read the family didn’t have a lot of money. How did that fuel you?

SS: I don’t think it’s a mistake that a lot of famous people came from nothing. Growing up, we were poor but surrounded by people who had a lot of money. I always appreciated my dad’s work ethic, but I learned a lot of what to do as well as what not to do from them. I was an only child and very observant. I knew I wanted to do better and they wanted that for me. My mother was undiagnosed bipolar so we never knew what was wrong. My father would deal with it by shutting down and going to work and I’d be left with my mom. It instilled fear into me because I never knew which mom I was going to get. And we didn’t know why she was behaving like she did. Thank God now we do, and she’s found the right doctor and help. We’re now able to be very close but as a kid, there was distance and fear at home and weather for me was comfort. I never linked it together until after seeing a therapist several years ago but I was always trying to predict her moods, which was like predicting the weather. I knew I’d have to work hard to get out, so my first job was when I was 12. It was literally a crap job: I cleaned the floors in my neighbor’s dog-kennel business. She raised toy poodles.

PGN: At least it wasn’t Great Danes!

SS: [Laughing] True. Thanks for giving it perspective! She was an interesting lady who had survived the Holocaust and married a chemist, who invented an airplane exterior to help planes fly — a fascinating couple, and they took me under their wings. From the time I was 12 until I was 20, I’d spend weekends with them cleaning cages. At the same time, I worked at a drugstore, which I would go to after my cross-country practice. They wanted to make me the manager of the store and I was like, “I’m still in high school! You can’t make me a manager!” But I was good with math and numbers and my register was the only one that always came out even at the end of the night. I also worked at a nursing home and I worked as a lifeguard and somehow managed to stay on the honor roll at school. I just knew I had to push to be the best of the best in order to escape. All I knew was work. I remember my father came into my room one night and said, “I hope you know how you’re planning to pay for college, ’cause I don’t got anything for you.” I thought to myself, Oh man, you are so screwed. You have to figure this out. So I took a semester off so I could work harder and save money for college. I knew once I got in, I’d be able to get loans and stuff. I just needed to get in. I didn’t have a car so I’d get up at 3 in the morning and walk down this truck route to the Marriott where I was the breakfast attendant. I got a car and ended up going to college in New York, where I got a job working overnights at WNBC. It was my first paid TV gig while I was still in school.

PGN: So you went from a cookie-cutter suburban area of PA to NY and managed to keep it together?

SS: I loved New York. The biggest cultural difference was being with people my own age. I’d always grown up around adults and was more comfortable hanging out with 40-, 50-year-old people than with 18- or 19-year-old kids my age. The best part of being in NY was that nobody looked at you or cared who you were; as long as you worked hard and were smart, you were in. It was beautiful and natural. I didn’t have to try to be someone I wasn’t. And it was so inspirational. I was dirt poor and walking into 30 Rock every day. I felt so blessed that I got to just walk through those doors each day and belonged there. I used that NY inspiration to keep me going when I had to move to rural Minnesota for my first full-time weather gig. I used the goal of getting back to a big city as fuel.

PGN: So you had to send out resumes and reels and hope someone picked you up?

SS: Yeah, and you need different levels of education depending on which market you’re going for. For example, if you’re doing weather in LA — where it’s sunny every day — you can get by without having the criteria under your belt that you’d need in Oklahoma or Texas or in the Northeast. You need to know your stuff there.

PGN: So it’s important to have that degree in science …

SS: Yes, especially with weather like we’ve been having recently. When life-threatening situations are going on, you’d better know what you’re talking about. There are a select few weather-casters out there like Sam Champion who know how to do that without being certified. And there are AMF-certified meteorologists who don’t know how to communicate! You could be the smartest meteorologist in the world, but if you can’t talk and be pleasant and interesting, it won’t help. [Laughing] You need beauty and brains!

PGN: Is it really necessary for you guys to be out there in the middle of a downpour? I always want to say, “Bring them inside!” I feel so bad for you.

SS: Don’t feel bad for us. That’s what we live for! Most of the times, we want to be out there. It’s important that meteorologists make sure it doesn’t look appealing to be out there so that people don’t try to go out themselves. Most of the network people at the big stations — CBS News, etc. — know what they’re doing and how to stay safe in those situations. So they know if you’re reporting out of a hotel, you want to be booked on a certain level floor and be in a hotel with a concrete structure. They’re not going to put somebody at a no-name motel built out of plywood next to a body of water to cover a hurricane or flood. You’d lose your crew!

PGN: That’s good to know.

SS: Yes, there are a lot of things that happen behind the scenes to keep us safe. It is funny, though: One of my favorite tweets was from a viewer who said, “I love when Steve Sosna’s out live. Last week, he was outside and it looked like he was freezing to death in a blizzard. This week, he looks like he’s about to be kidnapped in Upper Darby.” It was a live shot and there were rowdy Eagles fans swarming me. But that’s the excitement of the job for me. It can be rough. People don’t see that when I’m reporting from a blizzard, I’m running in and out of the news truck grabbing whatever food I can get and usually doing multiple hits. I have to do a report for the news, a report for Facebook, one for our website, for Twitter and Instagram, radio clips. You don’t just go in and do the 6 and 11 o’clock news anymore. It’s about more than just TV now.

PGN: Do people get angry with you when the weather’s not as predicted?

SS: Yes. [Laughing] And they’re not afraid to voice their opinions out in the street. But I understand their frustration. People have wedding plans. They have travel plans and work. And if we’re not doing our job properly, it’s personal to them. They’ve put time and money into situations and they’re relying on us. Don’t think that if we do get it wrong, which we don’t a lot, that we don’t have a sense of guilt about it. On the other hand, I encourage people to listen to everything we say, because often people only hear the parts they want. For example, if I say “4-6 inches of snow,” people will hear “6” and, in their minds, make it “6-8,” or don’t listen to where we say the “4-6” is going to be. It might not be Center City. Or maybe they heard it on another station and it’s not what I predicted, but we all get lumped together!

PGN: Guilt by weather association!

SS: Yes, but I make my own forecasts. I can show you my forecast sheets filled with numbers and calculations. I’m not pulling in my information from some weather app. I actually make my own forecasts.

PGN: That’s cool.

SS: Yes, there is a science behind it. And we’re very specific and regulated. For instance, when we say “severe thunderstorm.” We’re not just pulling that out of a hat or trying to be descriptive. It has to meet very-specific verification criteria. A severe-thunderstorm warning means the winds have to be 58 mph or greater, the hail size needs to be 1 inch or greater. If those criteria are not met, then the National Weather Service, which issues the warning and runs the verifications studies, has to face consequences from NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For instance, a few years ago, there was a bad snowstorm along the Pennsylvania Turnpike and there was no winter weather advisory in place and a bunch of people were involved in a multi-car pileup on the turnpike. They came to the Weather Service saying, “Where was the warning? Where was the advisory?” because, among other things, that’s what PennDOT relies and acts on. Commerce in all the municipalities act on that — airlines, you name it. We’re all connected to the weather, whether you know it or not. So it’s imperative that we do our jobs properly or there can be consequences. 

PGN: Good to know. What’s your favorite weather-related movie?

SS: “Twister.” No question. My first and favorite weather is the severe stuff: hurricanes, tornados. “The Perfect Storm” is a close second.

PGN: What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve been in?

SS: June 17, 2010. I was in Minnesota and we were experiencing the worst tornado outbreak ever: multiple really strong tornados, two EF4s just in my viewing area and the scale only goes to five! Four is the kind that levels schools. I remember just having an uneasy feeling all that day and saying to people: “This is a day when you really need to be aware.” We were listed as a PDS watch — a Particularly Dangerous Situation tornado watch. I was the morning meteorologist and, going to the gym, I saw a green/black sky approaching. I’d never seen it like that before. I raced into work and the town 15 minutes west of us had been wiped off the map. It was so strong, bark was ripped off the trees. There was glass and debris everywhere. It was like a war zone. I was in the middle of it and people were asking me if I’d seen their children or pets. What do you say? That part — seeing the destruction and aftermath — was not fun. During Irma and Harvey, the death tolls were actually way lower because people actually listened to us and took precautions. That’s what it’s all about.

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