Stormy Weather

Katrina devastated New Orleans and Mississippi. Now Rita is slamming into the Texas coast. Where do these names come from? Who picks them?

Traditionally, hurricanes were named for the saint’s day on which the hurricane occurred. This practice was prevalent in the Spanish West Indies. The same storm could have different names in different locales, depending on the day it struck each location as it moved across the Caribbean. On 13 September 1876, Hurricane San Felipe hit Puerto Rico. 52 years later, on 13 September 1928, Hurricane San Felipe the Second hit the island. This practice was even Anglicized on occasion; the September 1935 storm that devastated New England is known as the Labor Day storm.

With the advent of modern meteorology and storm tracking, the use of names that changed daily was untenable. The use of women’s names for storms began in the 1940s, following the use of a woman’s name for a storm in the 1941 novel Storm by George Stewart. Women’s names were used exclusively until 1978, except for 1951-52 when storms were named after the phonetic alphabet (Able, Baker, Charlie, etc.). In 1978, male names were added to the list of names for Pacific storms and a year later, Atlantic storm name list followed suit.

For each year the World Meteorological Organization creates a list of 21 male and female names for Atlantic storms, one for each letter of the alphabet (letters Q, U, X, Y, and Z are not used due to the relatively few names that begin with those letters). The list includes French, Spanish, Dutch, and English names to reflect the languages spoken throughout the Caribbean. The names are periodically reused, although names of storms that cause significant destruction are retired from the list. So, it is unlikely that we will ever have a Katrina the Second.

The Tropical Prediction Center in Miami, Florida tracks Atlantic storms. As soon as one is identified with wind speeds in excess of 38 miles per hour (34 knots), the next name on the list is assigned to the storm. Not all of these tropical storms grow into hurricanes and not all make significant landfall. (Which explains why we can go from Katrina to Rita in only a few weeks.)

If the list of names is exhausted and more storms continue to arise, the plan is to start naming them with letters of the Greek alphabet (alpha, beta, gamma, etc.). This has never happened before, but is a near certainty this year as hurricane season runs through November and we’re already on Rita. The most storms on record in a single season is twenty one, recorded in 1933, but this was before the modern system of nomenclature was introduced. 1995 is second, with nineteen named storms that year.

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