Those still suffering the wrath of Hurricanes Harvey or Irma may hope to never hear those names again. They might get their wish, at least as far as storm names go.
That’s because the names of hurricanes that cause severe loss of life or property damage are “retired” out of respect by a committee of the World Meteorological Organization, the arbiter of tropical cyclone monikers for decades.
The practice of permanently retiring storm names began after the brutal 1954 hurricane season, when Carol, Edna, and Hazel ravaged the East Coast of the United States. Since then, 84 storm names have been retired. They include Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, a trio from 2005 that inflicted much misery, notably in New Orleans; Camille, which flattened much of Mississippi’s coast in 1969; and Sandy, which in 2012 caused widespread damage on the Jersey shore and elsewhere.
But as the Weather Channel points out, all blacklisted Atlantic storms weren’t necessarily intense Category 3, 4, or 5 hurricanes. Many of them were barred because of deadly flooding in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, or the United States. Some examples of this include Ingrid in Mexico (2013); Hortense in Puerto Rico (1996); and Agnes in the eastern United States (1972).
Why do we name hurricanes anyway? Officials believed that having easily remembered names reduces confusion and increases preparedness when multiple storms are in play.
Clement Wragge, an eccentric British weatherman working in the Pacific, is credited with being the first forecaster to give names to tropical cyclones, beginning in the early 1900s. He picked on local politicians he disliked so they could be derided publicly (as in “old so-and-so is full of hot air.”)
Forecasters also named storms after a particular place, time, or event —for example, the storm that struck New England in 1938 was called the Long Island Express, because it made landfall on Long Island.
Seeking a standardized system, forecasters began naming storms on a wider scale in 1953 — after females. The reasons cited vary: Some link it to maritime tradition of labeling the sea as female; others say a popular novel, “Storm,” by George R. Stewart, prompted the change. The book tells the story of a tropical storm named Maria that caused widespread destruction on the California coast.
Following complaints about gender equality, male names were introduced into the mix in 1979.
The World Meteorological Organization now uses a system that alternates alphabetically between predetermined male and female names (No, they don’t take name requests). Six lists are used in rotation. So the 2017 list will be used again in 2023, starting over at the A’s, and every six years afterward.
Next up, after Irma, Jose, and Katia come Lee, Maria, Nate, Ophelia, Philippe, Rina, Sean, Tammy, Vince, and Whitney. For 2018, repeating from 2012, Alberto, Beryl, and Chris would be first up.Roy Greene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @roygreene