August/September 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 4
It’s more than just whimsy
Our hurricane-naming system evolved much the same way our baby-naming system did. Just as it’s easier to say “Jane Q. Smith” than to reel off a list of her identifying characteristics, so forecasters in the nineteenth century grew tired of referring to every big storm by its longitude, latitude, and date of origin. But that was the official protocol until the early 1950s, and more than once it led to dangerous mix-ups. At the exact moment when timely, accurate information was paramount, the presence of two storms in the same area could muddle communication between weather stations and coastal bases or ships at sea. Radio broadcasters often confused warnings about an oncoming hurricane with information about another cyclone traveling in the opposite direction.
For centuries the tradition in the Caribbean had been to name storms after the saints’ days on which they struck. The disaster at No. 2 on our list (the Great Okeechobee Hurricane) was, for example, commonly called Hurricane San Felipe because it hit Puerto Rico on September 13—San Felipe’s Day—in 1928. A meteorologist in Australia at the end of the 1800s had started dubbing particularly vicious hurricanes after politicians he hated. But American weathermen didn’t warm to the practice of using proper names until World War II, when U.S. Navy and Army Air Force forecasters in the Pacific, who needed to convey detailed information succinctly to far-flung troops, christened squalls after their wives and sweethearts.
Back home the U.S. Weather Bureau adopted a new strategy in 1950. Storms would be titled using the Army/Navy phonetic alphabet: Able, Baker, Charlie, and so on. After just two years, though, the bureau junked that idea and in 1953 began using female names. Immediately it found the new system much less prone to error than its previous schemes. It was concise, specific, and easy to remember. In 1979, in a women’s liberation–inspired fit of gender equality, the National Weather Service began alternating male and female names on its slate for the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.
Nowadays the season’s first low-pressure system to reach tropical-storm wind speeds, 39 mph miles per hour, gets the name beginning with A on the year’s list, and the rest of the storms follow in alphabetical order (skipping Q , U , X , Y , and Z because too few names begin with those letters). The Weather Service rotates six lists; this year’s names will be used again in 2012. Whenever a storm is particularly violent, its name is retired, out of sensitivity to the victims. That means there will never again be another Hurricane Andrew, Camille, Hugo, or Katrina. — C.G.