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?







Not So Secret Storm Stories

As a child I was intrigued with the name of a soap opera, “The Secret Storm.” While domestic drama on that serial may have been hush-hush, news about a hurricane is anything but secret. You couldn’t turn on the TV, get on the Internet, or engage in a conversation in the past few days without Hurricane Dorian being mentioned. We’ve been flooded with updates on the behemoth storm’s progress and blown away by projected paths which targeted our state and even our local area. As devastating and damaging as hurricanes are, they do have a positive aspect–they can provide us with lessons for succeeding in life..

Life Lesson #1: Expect The Expected

As a native Floridian who has lived in the Sunshine State for over forty years (albeit not consecutively), I have experienced my share of hurricanes. And why wouldn’t I? If you live in Florida, you are in a prime location for out of state friends and family as well as hurricanes to come calling. When the Atlantic hurricane season (June 1st through November 30th) rolls around, you have to face the facts. One of three things WILL happen. You will be hit by a storm, you will be threatened to be hit by a storm, or your local area will be hit with evacuees fleeing from a storm elsewhere. That’s just how it is.

Floridians have to be realistic. They can stick their heads in the sand (we have plenty of the pretty white stuff here on the Emerald Coast) and pretend that terrible weather won’t affect them. But Florida residents are living in la la land if they think that is really the case. Expecting that some terrible weather will occur sooner or later makes it less traumatic when the storm eventually shows up.

Real life is similar to being a Florida resident. The storms of life will at some point affect all of us. If we expect life isn’t always going to be a bed of roses, we are not as shaken up when difficulties arise. People get sick, family members die, relationships end (sometimes badly), friends disappoint you, jobs stress you out, etc. That’s life. It has its ups and downs. Expect that there will be downs.

Life Lesson #2: You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

A dream trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands provided me way more than I had imagined. Fabulous scenery? Check. Lots of leisure time? Check. Fun adventures? Check. A hurricane? Check. WAIT–a hurricane? You betcha.

For years I had longed to travel to St. Thomas and stay at a hotel called Pavilions and Pools. Finally, I was able to check this desire off my bucket list. A vacation to this U.S. territory was booked for August. (NOTE: Refer back to paragraph two above detailing the timing of hurricane season.) August worked for various reasons for our family (the kids were in school and my parents could come stay with them) and it was off season, so we could get a discount rate at the hotel.

The vacation was the best. We were free of parenting duties. I spent hours reading. We became acquainted with iguanas down the hill from the hotel and fed them lettuce from our villa’s kitchen. We toured the island. We walked on the beach. We swam in our own private pool. We ate conch fritters. The hotel had few occupants since it was off season, so it was quiet, and we had the place pretty much to ourselves. BUT…the news reports began talking about–you guessed it–a possible hurricane.

Eventually the possibility became a reality and the projected path brought the storm, Hurricane Debby, right to us. While tourists around us panicked, we remained calm. Hey, we were Floridians. We knew what to do under these circumstances. Instead of buying t-shirts and trinkets like the masses, we bought candles, matches, and two liter soda bottles (Note to those living in non-hurricane prone areas: You can fill up soda bottles with water in case the storm -disrupts the water supply/service.) An island-wide curfew was imposed, and we calmly enjoyed ourselves by candlelight assured that we had sufficient provisions and lighting.

Again, life is like our vacation predicament. We left an area where a problem was known to exist (the threat of hurricanes) and went off to an exotic vacation destination, a Caribbean island, where everything was going to be paradise. Only the problem followed us. Yup! Hurricanes threaten the Caribbean as well as Florida.

Most problems we have in our life aren’t tied to a specific location. Suffer health issues? Say heart problems or cancer? You’ll still have them even if you pack up and move from Florida to Arizona. Having relationship issues? Is changing your address automatically going to resolve them? No. You can run, but you can’t hide from whatever the problem is. Just deal with it.

Life Lesson #3 — There’s Always A Teachable Moment

In September 2004 Hurricane Ivan ravaged our area. My family  was without power for a week. We suffered from the lack of air conditioning and a daily routine. Having a hot meal was a luxury instead of something to which we didn’t give a second thought.

As uncomfortable and difficult as things were for my family, other area residents had it much worse than we did. The National Guard arrived and set up a staging area to distribute water, ice, and food. Volunteers were needed to help with the distribution. My husband and I stepped up to the plate and decided to take my teenage stepdaughter with us.

This volunteer work was eye-opening to all of us. It was heart-breaking to see how grateful those who came to receive basics like water and ice were. It was gratifying to see how the National Guard members and the volunteers worked together to assist our fellow state residents. It was reassuring to know that disaster plans were in place and could be followed when the need arose. My stepdaughter learned just how yummy (NOT) MRE’s are and had a greater appreciation for our military members who have to subsist off of them.

The aftermath of a hurricane gives us some insight into real life. No matter how bad your situation is, there is always someone else in a bad situation, sometimes even worse than yours. You can learn things (the value of teamwork, the value of having a plan for dealing with problems, etc.) even from difficult/bad situations. Bad situations provide an opportunity to teach your children by example. You can sit at home and grumble about how hot it is or you can get out and sweat to make a difference helping others.

Life Lesson #4 — Be Flexible

Why are Floridians glued to their TV sets and Internet screens? They want to see where the storm is going, i.e., are they in the bulls-eye? If there is one thing you quickly learn about hurricanes, it’s that no one can predict with much reliability what a storm is going to do in advance. Cones are simply predictions. As conditions change, so do the projected paths.

The only thing predictable about a hurricane is that it is unpredictable. The most vivid example of not being able to predict a storm path was Hurricane Opal. Safety-minded parents that we were, we stayed up to watch the late news to see where the storm was said to be headed. Whew! Off to the west of us. (Good luck Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.) A few short hours later we were awakened by a call to my active duty Air Force husband. He was being recalled to the base to batten down the proverbial hatches and then observe mandatory evacuation orders because Opal had changed course and was headed straight for us. Yikes!

Life is often like our Hurricane Opal story. You think you know what’s going to happen; then, all of a sudden–BAM!  And now for something completely different….That’s why it is helpful to be flexible. Be able to shift gears and deal with contingencies even if you don’t think that they will happen.

Those who watched the old soap, “The Secret Storm,” got something positive from the storm–entertainment. Those of us who have experienced hurricanes, real life storms, have had the opportunity to get something positive from those experiences. Hopefully we have learned to be realistic (expect the expected) and flexible. In addition, we should have realized that our problems will find us no matter where we are and that we can always learn something from bad situations. These takeaways aren’t a secret, but if we don’t apply them, they might as well be.


Have you ever been through a hurricane? Did you learn anything from the experience that has helped you in life? What’s your secret to surviving a storm, whether a weather phenomena or trouble in life?