THE ABCS OF HAVOC The hurricane name game

Posted on 09/03/2015

It’s 10 years already since Katrina devastated New Orleans and three since Sandy wreaked havoc in New York and New Jersey. Thankfully the last couple of years have seen less than average activity in the Atlantic and 2015 is forecast to follow the trend.
In the last week Hurricane Fred breezed through the Caribbean before bouncing off of Florida and heading out for a rare visit to the Cape Verde Islands.

While Fred turned out to be one of the less memorable hurricanes there was something about the name that got my attention: I’m not sure why exactly, but “Fred” just didn’t seem right – altogether too wimpy.  It struck me that a storm named “Frederick” would surely have commanded much more respect. Anyway it served to pique my interest in the naming of hurricanes and I soon discovered that Fred has a gaggle of equally oddly named buddies headed in our direction.

But first some history: Until the late 40’s hurricanes were rarely named at all and when they were it was usually after the place or date where/when they hit. There was The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 (the subject of Erik Larson’s wonderful book ‘Isaac’s Storm’) and the  ‘Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.’

The first hurricane named after a person was George in 1947, which was followed by Hurricane Bess in 1949 – named after First Lady Bess Truman. Despite the fact that Mrs. Truman was reportedly less than pleased at having her name attached to a storm that killed several people, by 1953 every tropical storm and hurricane was assigned a woman’s name. The custom continued until 1979 with a string of interesting names such as Orpha, Una and Wallis.

Presumably after enough women cried foul at this blatant brand of meteorological sexism, in 1980 the custom changed to the alternating use of male and female names in alphabetical order. Amazingly the process went one stage further and someone somewhere actually took the trouble to come up with a rotating six-year list of 21 names per annum – the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z being exempted presumably because such names as Quentin, Umberto, Xandra, Yolanda and Zack aren’t in sufficiently common use.  

Following on Fred’s heels this year we can look forward (or not) to seeing Grace, Henri, Ida, Joaquin, Kate and Larry and even the likes of Mindy and Rose with Wanda bringing up the rear. Next year kicks off with Alex, Bonnie and Colin.

At first glance I was selfishly pleased to note that there wasn’t a ‘David’ in sight all the way through until 2020 and then I discovered my handle had been assigned to the retired list: In 1979 the particularly nasty Hurricane David killed over 2,000 people in Puerto Rico and Florida.

Just as most major league sports retire jerseys and numbers, the names of the most deadly storms are systematically removed from the six-year rotating list. So, since 1954, Superstars such as Sandy, Andrew and Katrina have been joined by the likes of Roxanne, Hortense, Bob and Agnes along with some 70 others.

But, back to my initial reaction to ‘Fred’ - given that even the most insignificant tropical storms never spell anything but bad news for people and properties – not to mention vacations – shouldn’t the anonymous naming body consider using designations that reflect their nastiness?

For example, instead of ‘Carol’, how’s about ‘Cruella’?  ‘Tanya’ could be replaced by ‘Tarantula’ and ‘Sam’ by ‘Satan’.

In retrospect, even looking at the list of retirees, Fred really isn’t that bad - in 1974 there was a Hurricane Fifi.  Now that’s really lame!