June 16, 2024

Each year before the hurricane season officially begins in June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases the forecast for the Atlantic’s turbulent season ahead. In a predictable cycle, articles begin swirl in to answer known queries: What will these hurricanes be called? Who chooses their names? Why are hurricanes called people anyway? This year, the first will be named Alberto, then Beryl, Chris, Debby, and so on to William, the end of the alphabet in terms of desirable letters that meteorologists trust they can extract understandable names from.

It’s likely that a few of these monikers will be retired, an honor bestowed on particularly deadly, destructive storms whose reuse “on another storm would be inappropriate for obvious reasons of sensitivity.” according to NOAA. This year’s season is predicted to be the busiest on record due to record-warm waters in the Atlantic Ocean, which could fuel stronger hurricanes, and the predicted shift from an El Niño climate pattern to a La Niña one whose weaker high-altitude winds make it easier for hurricanes to form. NOAA recently projected this 17 to 25 named storms will appear this year, with four to seven reaching major hurricane status, Category 3 or higher.

The official naming of hurricanes dates back to 1953, when the U.S. Weather Bureau began labeling tropical storms to draw public attention, reduce confusion between storms, and indicate a level of severity (storms don’t make the cut unless their winds reach 39 miles per hour). The personality of hurricane names makes them memorable, but the practice comes with strange side effects, as names are loaded with cultural baggage that can affect how people talk about, or even prepare for, a storm coming their way. “Names have a huge impact on how we perceive and respond to dangers,” said Liz Skilton, a historian at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the author of the book Storm: Hurricane Naming and American Culture.

It also works the other way around, with particularly bad hurricanes swinging what people call their babies. It is well documented that catastrophic storms resulted in fewer babies named Betsy (1965) and Harvey (2017), as most parents hesitated to give their child a name associated with a catastrophe. Some even plan ahead: “Is it a bad idea to use an upcoming hurricane name?” one prospective parent asked on Reddit A few years ago, worried that the baby name they loved would be tarnished. (The same names are rotated every six years until they’re retired by association with a terrible storm.) While the consensus on Reddit was that they’d made it up too much, the hurricane association could cause problems for people with unique names. After Hurricane Katrina killed approximately 1,400 people in Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, one trauma recovery psychologist who worked with survivors went by her initialsKH, because introducing herself by her real name, Katrina, led to “a visceral reaction.”

Old black and white photo of a resident wading through floodwaters in windy conditions
After Hurricane Betsy strikes in 1965, a resident of Miami Beach, Florida braves high winds and mid-deep water to assess the damage. The widespread destruction across the Bahamas and Gulf Coast earned the storm the nickname “Billion Dollar Betsy.” Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Oddly enough, research suggests that baby names that sound similar after a much-discussed hurricane tends to rise in its wake. One analysis found that names beginning with A became 7 percent more common after Hurricane Andrew caused billions of dollars in damage in 1992, and those beginning with K rose 9 percent after Hurricane Katrina. The researchers have it up to the influence of hearing those names so oftenwhich changed what kind of names sounded good to people.

Before hurricanes were given human names, they were named randomly, often depending on when or where they struck, such as the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926. The practice of naming hurricanes after women began in 1896 with Clement Lindley Wragge, an Australian weather forecaster, start. Wragge’s idea went on to inspire George R. Stewart’s hit novel in 1941, Storm, starring a meteorologist who secretly named hurricanes after girls he knew. The idea gradually caught on, and the Weather Bureau decided to test it out nationwide.

The devastating storms of the 1954 season, Carol, Edna and Hazel became known as “the bad girls of ’54.” Reporters clamored for the chance to write about storms as dramatic female characters, portraying them as crying, shrieking, and brooding. “Hurricanes were not only feminine—they were examples of the worst kind of femininity imaginable,” Skilton wrote in Storm. There was backlash from the start, and it only intensified in the 1970s, with Roxcy Bolton leading the feminist charge. “I’m tired of seeing headlines like ‘[Hurricane] Camille Was No Lady,” she told the press.

Skilton, who researched the language used to talk about hurricanes in thousands of newspaper articles over the decades, found that when storms hit, local reporters used the most gender-specific language. For example, when Hurricane Diane made landfall in North Carolina in 1955, 18 percent of articles in surrounding states referred to the storm as a woman, either with his/her pronouns or nouns such as “lady,” twice as often than articles in the rest of the country. Similarly, when Hurricane Camille invaded Mississippi in 1969, articles in Gulf Coast states were more than three times as likely as other areas to specify the storm’s gender. To name a storm, drench it imagined, human characteristicsproviding a target for people to express their anger “against this natural object that has caused so much damage or destruction” where they live, Skilton said.

Photo of a sign outside a restaurant that reads 'Don't Bean Mean Irene'
Signs are seen on an orchard restaurant in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, before the expected landfall of Hurricane Irene in 2011.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

In 1979, a new system alternated between men’s and women’s names, ordered by President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Commerce, Juanita Kreps. At the same time, control of the naming convention was handed over to the World Meteorological Organization, which still maintains the list. The Atlantic storms began to rotate between English, French and Spanish names, reflecting the mix of ancestry in the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast. It’s common practice around the world to give storms names that reflect the ethnicities in the regions they affect, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.

With names like Allen and Frederic thrown into the mix, Hurricanes seemed to pick up more aggressive, even belligerent personalities. Hurricane David, the first major storm in 1979, a period in which serial killers cast a shadow over the national mood, was called a “killer” that “tore” and “tore” the coastline, diabolical and determined in “its ” attack. These kinds of associations with names and gender can have real consequences: A 2014 study found that female survey respondents viewed storms as less deadly than their male counterparts, and therefore less worthy of evacuating. That correlation was reflected in historical death tolls, the authors found, with storms named after women do more damage. The study has received criticism, with some scholars increase questions about the methods, but Skilton said the research should lead people “to question whether the storm names are affecting us in a harmful way.”

As the climate changes, hurricanes, floods and heat waves worsen, people are calling on government agencies to give names to other types of extremes, from “Winter Storm Archer“after”Heat wave Zoe.” This opens up a new avenue in disaster communications—and, if history repeats itself, new complications.

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