Name That Storm! — How Hurricane Handles Happen


Starting in 1954, viewers could tune in and watch “The Secret Storm,” a CBS soap opera, for two decades. But there’s nothing secret about real life storms–hurricanes. Weathermen and the media give us all the details on such storms; they even reveal the names hurricanes are to be given before hurricane status is achieved. How hurricanes get these handles, though, has always been a mystery to me. Let’s get rid of the secrecy and bring the naming plot into the open.

Finding out how hurricanes are named is a timely topic because we are currently in the midst of hurricane season which runs from June 1st until November 30th. What exactly is a hurricane though? It is a tropical cyclone that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean or in the northeast Pacific Ocean.

Although the origin of the word “hurricane” is subject to debate, one explanation is that it derived from the name of the Mayan storm god, Hurakan. Another explanation is that the word comes from the Taino (indigenous people of Florida and the Caribbean) word Hurrican, the Carib Indian God of Evil. My vote is with the latter theory. Anyone who has experienced the fury of a hurricane (think high winds, flooding, property damage, and power loss) can attest to how such a storm is properly linked to evil.

Atlantic hurricanes have been given names for a few hundred years. Hurricanes in the West Indies, for example, were named after the saint’s day on which a hurricane occurred. Thus, the exclamation “Saint Peter is raising holy hell!” could very well have been heard during a storm back then. If another storm occurred on the same saint’s day in a subsequent year, the designation, “the Second,” might be added to the name. Under these circumstances, one being battered by the second  storm might say, “Saint Peter the Second is even worse that Saint Peter was!”

In the early days of meteorology in the United States, hurricanes were denoted with the latitude and longitude of the storm’s point of origin. To no one’s great surprise, this method made discussing a storm difficult because folks were tripped up by the numbers in the location. Without a handy map and map reading skills, people were clueless as to the meaning conveyed by a sequence of numbers. Yelling, “Better batten down the hatches for +25.761681 -80.191788,” is confusing and less than helpful.

Not many good things come out of a war, but World War II led to better way to talk about storms. Military meteorologists working in the South Pacific then began using women’s names for storms. Accordingly, military radio traffic might have included a warning to “Watch out for the Japs and for Betty. They are both headed your way!”

Use of women’s names for quick identification of hurricanes was adopted by the National Hurricane Center in 1953. It became easier to discuss the storms with familiar names rather than number sequences, so public awareness of hurricanes increased. Citizens could remember names better than technical terms.

But how sexist was it to designate destructive storms with only women’s names? Men can wreak a great deal of havoc themselves. The National Hurricane Center broadened its outlook and starting to use men’s names for hurricanes in the late 1970’s. Equal rights for hurricane names! Woo hoo!

The names given to hurricanes are selected by the World Metereological Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. Needless to say, WMO staff are located far away from the path of any hurricane whether bearing a male or a female name. An international committee of WMO pre-approves the storm names for each season which are given to storms in alphabetical order. Nevertheless, only 21 names, not 26, are chosen. The letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z are skipped due to the difficulty of finding names beginning with them. But some head-scratching is required as to some of the 2020 names chosen. Dolly? Nana? Teddy? Do these sound like the names of fierce and destructive storms? NAH!

The WMO committee compiling storm names approves six lists of names which are used on a rotating basis. So, the 2020 list of names will be used again in 2026. In even years, a man’s name is given to the first storm; thus, Arthur, a man’s name, was the first 2020 storm. So much for ladies first!

What happens if it’s a really busy hurricane season and all 21 pre-approved names are used before the hurricane season ends? It’s all Greek to me–literally. Once the list of human names is exhausted, storms are then named after the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet. And that’s what is happening here in 2020 with Beta recently dropping in to pay her respects. The only other time in history the Greek alphabet was used was in 2005 when six storms bore Greek letters–Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, and Zeta.

Using Greek letters for hurricane names might broaden public knowledge. Raise your hand if you can recite the Greek alphabet. Not seeing any hands out there. (Yes, I know I can’t see them from my computer, but I bet none are raised regardless.) However, Greek letter names are a bit weird. We might hear, “Nu is getting stronger” or “Oops! Upsilon could cause a lot of destruction!”

Names can be retired if a storm is particularly destructive and costly. It would be insensitive to use them for subsequent storms. Thus, there’s no chance of a future Hurricane Katrina. To date there have been 88 retired storm names. Name retirement requires the WMO committee to chose a replacement name beginning with the same letter as the retired storm.

An as yet unanswered question is how storms will be named if all 24 Greek alphabet letters are used during a hurricane season. No plans have yet been made for that possibility. Let’s hope the situation never happens, but it is 2020; that means it’s prudent to be prepared for any eventuality. We did hit the “W” storm name this year sooner than any other any other “W” storm on record. That does not bode well. Stay tuned–not for “The Secret Storm,” but to see how hurricane handles will be determined post-Omega. 

Just WONDER-ing:

What do you think would be a good name for a hurricane? How should storms be named if the Greek alphabet is exhausted? Would you have a clue where a storm originated if designated by its latitude and longitude?







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