Hurricane Isabel over the Outer Banks,September 18, 2003. NOAA photo

By Peter Vankevich

No official statements regarding how active this year’s Atlantic hurricane season have yet been made, but changes may be forthcoming.

For more than 50 years, the official start of the Atlantic Hurricane season is June 1 and ends on Nov. 30, but next year it may begin earlier.

This follows from a December discussion at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) hurricane conference on starting the season earlier. The reason is that tropical level storms have formed in May in each of the past six years.

Last year, Tropical Storm Arthur formed on May 16, followed by Tropical Storm Bertha on May 27.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), an agency under the auspices of the United Nations and which controls all the major storm names worldwide, will have the final say and will discuss the potential change for 2022 at its spring meeting.

In any event, the National Hurricane Center said it will begin issuing Tropical Weather Outlooks in May, weeks before the official start of hurricane season. This is an important notice for those who live on the Outer Banks and along the Atlantic Coast.

Tropical storms that originate in the Atlantic Basin—the area encompassing the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico — and that reach sustained wind speeds of 39 mph get a name. Any storm that reaches a sustained wind speed of 74 mph on the Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale qualifies as a hurricane. As intensities rise, they are classified up to Category 5 if they reach winds of 157 mph and over.

Here is the list of the 2021 storm names in alphabetical order. The letters Q, U, X, Y and Z, which have few common names, are not used.
The names selected come from one of six rotating alphabetic lists of 21 names. So, this list will be used again in 2027 with the possible exceptions that some storm names will be retired and replaced with other names.

If this year, as in 2020, the names are all used, storms will be named in the order of the Greek alphabet. Last year, the following letters were used: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta and Iota.

Should there be even more for this year, then Kappa, Lambda, Mu and Nu would follow.

The year 2020 will go down in history as one of the worst storm seasons — the most active and fifth most costly on record. Despite its name, the last, Hurricane Iota, was not a small or insignificant storm. It was the latest Atlantic hurricane to attain Category 5 intensity and only the second Category 5 Atlantic hurricane on record to occur within the month of November. Iota caused severe damage to areas of Central America already reeling from devastation caused by Hurricane Eta two weeks earlier. The deadly 1932 Cuba hurricane was the first November Category 5 storm.

Naming storms makes it easier for the media to report on them and for people to follow, and it has a fascinating history.   

According to Hurricane Facts, the etymology of the word hurricane comes from the Taino Indigenous Caribbean word hurakán meaning “god of the storm.”

The Spanish took the word and added the names of patron saints on whose feast days the storms occurred. “Hurricane Santa Ana,” which struck Puerto Rico on July 26, 1825, is an example.

Naming storms makes it easier for the media to report on them and for people to follow, and it has a fascinating history.

In addition to having saint names, prior to 1950, storms were frequently named for a location, year or even an object. Examples are the Great Colonial Storm of 1635, the Great Galveston Hurricane (1900), the Lake Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 and Racer’s Hurricane (1837), which got its name from the Royal Navy ship “HMS Racer,” which encountered this storm in the northwestern Caribbean Sea.

Because they were not formalized, these older hurricanes have gone by various names. The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 — one of the most powerful storms to ever strike the eastern United States and which is frequently compared with Hurricane Dorian (2019) as to its intensity and damage to Ocracoke Island — locally is referred to as the ’44 Storm.

For several years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Australians used various naming systems for tropical cyclones, but discontinued their efforts. The story goes that it got out of hand when the weatherman Clement Wragge started naming them after politicians he disliked.

The 1950 Atlantic hurricane season was the first year the National Weather Service gave official names for hurricanes but not tropical storms. The names were taken from the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet, beginning with Able, Baker, Charlie, and so on.  It was a highly active season with 16 tropical storms, 11 of which developed into hurricanes. 

In retrospect, that may not have been the best system for naming hurricanes.  Notable names were Hurricane Dog, Hurricane Jig, Hurricane How, Hurricane Item and, perhaps worst, Hurricane Love. Adding to the confusion, the same names and order were continued for 1951 and 1952.

Women’s names
In 1953, the National Hurricane Center overhauled the system by creating an alphabetical list for Atlantic tropical storms that would change from year to year and would be exclusively women’s names. It is not official, but one speculated reason is the NHC took it from the habit of naval meteorologists, who named the storms after their wives or girlfriends.

There was no unanimous support for assigning women’s names only which led to many stereotypical clichés and descriptions of these storms in headlines and news reporting.

Efforts to change the naming system grew. In 1969, pushed by activist Roxcy Bolton, the National Organization for Women (NOW) passed a motion at its national conference “that a communication be sent to National Hurricane Center in Miami asking that hurricanes not be named exclusively female names.”

The naming system of using only women’s names in the Atlantic Basin continued until 1979. Juanita Kreps, the first woman to be Secretary of Commerce which oversees NOAA, urged that the name list, by then controlled by the WMO, have alternate men’s and women’s names. A year earlier, storms in the Eastern North Pacific, which get a separate list of names, began alternating gender names with the first male being the largely forgotten Tropical Storm Bud.

This naming change, which few even think about these days, generated both support and resistance and became part of the raging culture wars of the 70s and linked to the women’s liberation movement.

A critical article in the New York Times back then began with the pun “Hell hath no fury like a woman stormed.”

The Washington Post later cited a 1979 Houston Chronicle column. Here are some excerpts:
Bob. Hurricane Bob. Utterly ridiculous.
Like many seafarers who look south to the winds and tide of capricious fate, I am insulted and offended by this sell-out labeling of storms. “Bob” rather than “Barbara” or “Brenda” or “Betsy” typifies the lack of character that seems to be stifling the 70s.
That decision, which shows a total void of tropic sensitivity and respect, was surely made in some landlocked office far removed from salt breeze and common sense.
The sea is a “she.” Fisherman and sailors around the world know that. Boats and ships that ply the open currents are “shes.”

Retired names
If you cannot find your name on a current hurricane list, there could be a reason.

When a hurricane is so destructive or costly, for reasons of sensitivity, the name is retired and no longer used, a decision made by the WMO Hurricane Committee.

Up to 2018, 89 names have been retired. In 2018, Both Florence and Michael, after causing extensive fatalities and damage from Florida north to Virginia, will be replaced with Francine and Milton on the 2024 list.

Decisions on retiring names from the 2019 and 2020 years were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will be forthcoming and expect more.

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