LET'S REMINISCE: Naming of hurricanes

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

I have often wondered how names get assigned to hurricanes. Here’s the answer I found in a Wall Street Journal article. The National Hurricane Center chooses Atlantic storm names from one of six rosters. Each has 21 names, and the lists rotate annually—so this year’s selection will recur in 2027, next year’s in 2028, and so on.

There’s one exception: If a storm is especially destructive, its name will be retired. Since 1953, when the system was implemented, there have been 748 named Atlantic storms, including 419 hurricanes. Of that number, 93 have been retired.

Maria was dropped after it demolished Puerto Rico in 2017. Katrina was removed after decimating New Orleans in 2005. And Andrew was booted after pounding the Bahamas, Florida and Louisiana in 1992. All were Category 5 storms that caused enormous damage and death.

When their names were eliminated, they had been used no more than three times each, but other names have been used repeatedly over decades. Ten different storms have been called Arlene. Cindy and Dolly have been used nine times each. Bertha and Frances have been used eight times. All remain in rotation, along with dozens of other names that have been used up to six times each.

Only 39 names were used just once before being retired, including Irma in 2017, Joaquin in 2015 and Sandy in 2012. Elsa, a replacement for Erika, was used for the first time this year.

A tropical storm is named when its wind speed exceeds 39 miles an hour, according to Lixion Avila, a retired senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center. The names are meant to make it easier to discuss storms and communicate with the public.

Although the National Hurricane Center originated the naming convention, similar systems are used world-wide.

The World Meteorological Organization Hurricane Committee, whose members include representatives from five regional tropical cyclone bodies, maintains and updates the lists (and will decide at its next annual meeting whether to retire Elsa).

In general, storms are named according to regional conventions. In the Atlantic, names are assigned in alphabetical order. Those beginning with Q, U, X, Y and Z are omitted because in this region, they aren’t common enough. Women’s and men’s names alternate (since 1979) and are of English, Spanish, Portuguese or French origin to reflect the languages of the area.

The list lengths vary by area. The Atlantic rosters include 21 names because when they were originated, that was the largest number of storms the area had recorded in a single season, in 1933. The thinking was that was never going to happen again. And it didn’t ...until 2005, when there were 27 named Atlantic storms; and in 2010, when there were 21; and last year, when there were 30.

When the names ran out, additional storms were tagged with letters from the Greek alphabet, causing a bewildering sequence in 2020, when storms named Zeta, Eta and Theta occurred within days of each other. Unfortunately, the similar-sounding words led to messaging challenges rather than streamlined and clear communication.

In anticipation that the number of tropical storms will continue to exceed the number of approved names, the Greek letters were replaced in March with lists of

supplemental names. The Atlantic version begins with Adria, Braylen, Caridad and Deshawn.

As you can see, the naming of hurricanes isn’t as easy as A-B-C. Especially when their numbers far exceed 1-2-3.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.