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When most people are heading to the supermarket because a major snowstorm is coming our way, meteorologist Kathy Orr is at work – and probably planning to stay the night.

“If the storm is large enough, you’re on what we call ‘wall to wall.’ It means you could be on air all the time, usually in 12-hour shifts,” she says. But for Philadelphia’s first female meteorologist (she came to the market in 1988), that’s all in a day’s work. “You run on adrenaline, but maybe after the 36th hour, you realize you need a little sleep.”

Orr finds the weather scientifically fascinating, but she also recognizes the common impact a forecast has on everyday life. “People plan their day around the weather,” she says. “And it affects your mood.”

“I did an unscientific poll with a Temple professor years ago, and we asked people about their favorite type of weather. It was amazing to me that sun was extremely important to women, and many people said the most romantic weather was thunderstorms. It was interesting − everyone had an opinion about the weather.”

“People talk to me all the time about the weather, but not only that,” she continues, “they talk about the weather even if I’m not there. I’ll be in a department store, and I’ll hear people discussing the forecast. It’s just something everyone wants to know about, for a variety of reasons.”

Putting together a weather report can take anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours, and some forecasts must be updated constantly. When the weather is stable and has been consistent for a few days, Orr will quickly develop the forecast on her own. But on other days – during a storm, for instance – she might work with a team of meteorologists to collaborate, and that takes time and focus.

“We’re trying to predict something that hasn’t even developed yet. We’re trying to forecast the future, and that can be really challenging. It takes a lot of dedication to get it right,” she says.

“You need to study the storms that went right and the storms that deviated from the forecast. It requires doing your homework and putting in the time. We have all this raw data, but that alone doesn’t tell the story. You need experience to make the right calls,” says Orr, who worked at CBS 3 for 12 years before moving to Fox 29 in 2015.

But as everyone knows, forecasts sometimes miss the mark.

“We make a forecast with the best information available at the time,” she adds. “Sometimes, computer models don’t handle a storm well. I try to be honest with our viewers and explain that the forecast can change with new information or that there are ‘wild cards’ that will emerge as the storm develops. Some storms are easy to forecast. Some are much harder.”

“I think our viewers are pretty savvy in this day and age. They understand the challenge, and a lot of them are trying to understand what we do by looking at tools on the internet. I love that.”

Orr is a familiar figure in the Philadelphia/South Jersey television news market, winning several awards for her work here and being inducted into the Broadcaster Pioneers of Philadelphia’s Hall of Fame in 2013. She has broadcast live from the World Series and Super Bowl, and provided weather updates and commentary for XM Radio, ESPN Radio and SportsIllustrated.com. She is especially known for her “Orr at the Shore” series of summer reports that highlighted environmental awareness along the Jersey Shore.

She also loves the science of meteorology and has worked to pass on her passion to young students, especially girls. Orr collaborated with the American Meteorology Society to design a course in climatology, meteorology and oceanography for teachers to include in their curriculum. Orr hopes she’s helping to create the next generation of meteorologists.

“I realized how many young people really were interested in math and science, and I always try to promote meteorology as a great combination of the two,” Orr explains. “I think it’s important for little girls to know that and to see me on television. They see me and think, ‘Oh, obviously I can do that, too.’ It breaks all kinds of barriers.”

Orr has gotten especially close with her viewers recently, thanks to social media. She has almost 30,000 Facebook followers, nearly 13,000 Twitter followers and more than 4,000 followers on Instagram. She frequently posts behind-the-scenes photos at FOX (often showing what Philadelphia snack she’s about to enjoy), weather reports (of course) and simple snapshots of her home life, although she has so far kept the identities of her two children private.

 

"Everything" in moderation, right? @fox29philly

A post shared by Kathy Orr (@kathyorrfox29) on

 

“You really have to find the right balance for you and your family on social media,” she says. “If you have young children, you can’t really be sure what they would prefer. When your children are older, they might not want to be in the spotlight. I really do try to balance it and make sure I’m being fair.”

But Orr has found her presence on social media has improved her relationship with viewers.

“It’s a wonderful way to communicate with viewers, because they do want quick updates about the weather, but they’re also interested in what you’re doing,” she says.

“I always felt like they knew me, but you don’t realize until you’re involved in social media and sharing something with your viewers how much they really don’t know you. Once you share more and they learn more about you, it’s fun. They’re more like your friends, and it’s a whole different relationship than on the air. It becomes two-way.”

And because of that relationship, she considers forecasting the weather accurately as a great responsibility.

“The forecast is always the challenge. You’re dealing with uncertainties,” she says. “But I enjoy telling the weather story of the day. As a meteorologist you just want to get it right. You want that every single day.”

 


Victoria Mier contributed to this article.

May 2017
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