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What's in a hurricane's name?

Once upon a time tropical storms and hurricanes were faceless and nameless. How times have changed.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Once upon a time tropical storms and hurricanes were faceless and nameless. How times have changed.

Long gone are the days when storms were given the names of the saints, old military phonetic alphabet names (i.e., Able, Baker, Charlie, etc.) or even just Euro-American women's names.

Today's storms can be dubbed not just Danielle, Laura and Teresa, but Norbert, Kiko, Omeka, Lekima or Krovanh — to name a few officially designated selections on lists maintained by the World Meteorological Organization.

In fact, we are so used to hurricane names that we forget it was just six decades ago when no one had ever seen a hurricane's cyclopean face from space, and we were mostly blind to the movements of such storms until too late.

"They didn't have a warming system," said Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center, explaining how storm naming was done in the past. "(The storms) had names after the fact."

Read is also the chairman of the World Meteorological Organization's hurricane committee which, among many other duties, manages the names lists for hurricanes that threaten the United States, the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada and Bermuda.

In the old days, storms were born, struck land and, if they were memorable in some usually tragic way, were named "The Storm of '48" or "San Felipe of 1876," after the saint's day on which it made landfall.

Weather satellites and better forecasting tools later made it possible to track multiple storms. That job was made a lot easier and less confusing by giving storms proper names.

The first official scheme to name Atlantic hurricanes was just after World War II. That was the military alphabet approach. It was dropped in 1953 in favor of using women's names.

"That came crashing down on us males in 1979," laughed Read. Ever since then, the names of women and men are alternated on the alphabetical lists.

And there are a lot more lists. The two lists most Americans are familiar with cover the Atlantic and East Pacific. But there are also lists with culturally appropriate names that cover the Central North Pacific, Western North Pacific, Australian Region, Fiji Region, Papua New Guinea Region, Philippine Region, Northern and Southern Indian Ocean.

The Atlantic and East Pacific lists each have six lists of 21 alphabetical names (excluding letters Q, U, X, Y and Z), which are recycled every six years, unless a storm is so awful that its name is retired — like Katrina, for instance. There will never be another Hurricane Katrina, Camille, Andrew, Ike or Paloma.

"Any member can request that a name be removed if there is extensive damage and/or deaths caused by a named tropical cyclone," said meteorologist Max Mayfield, who is a former chair of the WMO hurricane committee. "The members of the hurricane committee then simply vote on any names nominated.

It can be a tricky process, however, which is why Mayfield used to prepare for the name-replacing issues well before the annual meeting.

"I learned after my first year as chairman that the committee could spend an inordinate amount of time on this," said Mayfield. "If I even thought that a name might be requested to be removed, I would call the most impacted countries well before the meeting and ask: 1) if they were going to propose removal of a name, and 2) to ask them to suggest a few replacement names."

As to whether using human names is the best approach: "That actually is an issue that comes up," said Read. "Is there a better way to do this?"

Maybe, but so far, the current system seems to be working.