Got an ex-wife who's a real shrew? Don't bother with messy settlements, custody battles, stalking. Try something bigger, showier. Something that will alert the world to the dark truth you already know about her. Think death, destruction, mayhem, on a mass scale. Think Andrew, 1992.
"Dear Mr. Mayfield," Khalil ElSolh begins his letter to the director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "I would like you to kindly contact the WMO (World Meteorological Organization) and persuade the concerned person(s) to replace the name 'Rene' (already chosen for the year 2002) with the female name: 'RANIA' hoping it will be given to the most powerful and harmful hurricane hitting Central Florida.
"I was married to 'Rania' for 22 years and would very much appreciate if her name is given to a hurricane," ElSolh continues, sweetening his request with an offer to donate money to the WMO. "If I were lucky as I have always been, hurricane 'Rania' will demolish a vast area of Central Florida, (preferably Orlando and its suburbs), and leave it with intensive damages, devastating enough for the next several generations to remember."
In the hands of America's vaudeville meteorologists, all weather these days is operatic: Air masses "clash" and storms "surge" and the sun "scorches." And then there's the mother of all metaphors, the hurricane. Each year the slow news cycle of midsummer is punctuated by the epic battle of Wind vs. Man whenever the sustained wind velocity gets above 40 miles an hour or so. Each year the world awaits the first assault, signaled by the scarlet letter A: Hurricane Alex, or Arlene, Alberto, Andrea, Arthur or Ana.
In the drama of American weather reporting, hurricanes play the villain. They are the Axis powers, assaulting from the sea. They "batter" and "pummel" and "demolish" and, in the minds of more imaginative meteorologists, even "blitzkrieg" the coastline, looting as they go.
If weather is biblical, these storms are the God of Vengeance, exacting payment for human sins (in this case overdevelopment of the coastline). And the poor citizens, most lately those of the Outer Banks in North Carolina, receive the punishment on the evening news like so many Jobs -- clothes rent, possessions erased, heads hung submissively.
So it should come as no surprise that there are people out there who try to harness such power for their own gratification.
For instance: "I shall find great personal relief," writes ElSolh (whose 2000 letter showed up in a pile of documents from the National Hurricane Center requested by researcher Michael Ravnitzky) "when Florida residents . . . unhappily remember hurricane 'Rania.' "
More than a century ago, hurricanes were simply numbered, 1, 2, 3, etc. But forecasters and ship captains confused information about different storms, particularly if they were building simultaneously. The biggest ones could be named for years, such as the "Hurricane of '38" that ravaged New England. In 1950, forecasters tried a phonetic alphabet, "Able," "Baker," "Charlie," "Dog." But that system, too, failed to capture the imagination.
So in 1953 they replaced it with a system used informally during World War II. Sailors then named storms after their girlfriends, wives, mothers-in-law. "Presumably these storms shared personality traits with the namesakes," jokes Frank Lepore, spokesman for the Hurricane Center. This system stuck. Forecasters found that when storms were personified, they had an easier time telling them apart.
This held until 1979 when Florida feminist Roxcy Bolton badgered the Hurricane Center until officials agreed to stop naming hurricanes exclusively after women. (You know the stereotypes: white hot, wild, the female of the species is more deadly than the male.) Bolton suggested using senators' names, but that idea was rejected.
Now there are six lists with 21 names each, alternating male and female; none begin with the letters Q, U, X, Y or Z. They are rotated every six years, so this year's list will be used again in 2010. Names on a list are retired only if a hurricane's damage is so deadly or costly that using the name again would be inappropriate, the Hurricane Center's Web site explains. Mitch was retired. So was Andrew, replaced by this year's Alex.
New names are picked by the member countries at the annual meeting of the WMO. The United States is in the Atlantic region, grouped together with 24 other nations. Among them are France and several Latin American countries, and so the list also includes Spanish and French names.
Names have to be short and distinctive in order to be easily understood in a broadcast. Forecasters pick them from baby books, but if they are trendy that's accidental. This year Alex reflects a fad for androgynous names. But the "B" name is the old-fashioned Bonnie. Matthew replaced Mitch, Gaston replaced Georges.
Each year dozens of people write to the Hurricane Center suggesting new names, mostly their own. This is what Freud might call an infantile wish for omnipotence. Peri Andrews wrote an e-mail in 2000 saying she'd like to see a hurricane named Peri. Jared Rapaport, whose e-mail moniker is Narcism, wanted, you guessed it, Jared. Cheryl Hardeman in 2003 suggested Hurricane Cheryl or the more modest Tropical Storm Lee, after her middle name.
Bruno Benedetti writes in on vanity stationery, adorned with "BRUNOTES" and a sketch of himself in the upper right. "For many years I have offered my name -- BRUNO -- for the new offspring in my family," he writes. "To date, not one has accepted my $100 offer." If the center will name a hurricane after him, he promises to donate that money to charity.
One man writes in to say "Debby" and "Dolly" are too frivolous for such a grand scale of misery. Someone named Debby writes: "I am VERY ANGRY that a malicious storm has been given my name." Instead she suggests they use nonsense names: Hurricane Doola or Diddly or Dingbat or Duffo or Eeek. "This business of using human names MUST END!" she writes.
To properly reflect the gravity of such weather events, Earl Higgins of Louisiana suggests names such as Hurricane "ANXIETY" and "OMINOUS." Scott Solsman of Ohio offers "Godot," in hopes of seeing the headline: "New York City is Waiting for Godot."
That "might be a tad too tinged in irony . . . or maybe whimsy," Lepore writes back, in one of his many whimsical responses. "But who knows, it might be culturally uplifting."
Usually the writer gets some version of a form letter explaining the standard procedure: The United States is only one of 25 nations that collectively decide on new names at their annual spring meeting. In a typical year there are eight hurricanes and only one that does enough damage to be retired, leaving only a 1-in-8 chance that a new name is needed.
But: "If you want your given name to be eternally associated with death, destruction, human misery, the National Hurricane Center will accept your nomination," Lepore wrote back to Jared and then suggested he contact the International Astronomical Union and ask if it will name a star after him.
Max Mayfield, director of the center, says in the scheme of things he wants to "spend minutes, not hours" on the names. He and the other forecasters have important business to tend to; in the middle of an interview, in fact, he breaks to take a call from the emergency director in North Carolina to ask if there had been any "loss of life" from Alex (there hadn't).
Mayfield's biggest headache came in 2001 when the WMO selected the name Israel, which the members agreed was a nice first name to replace the retired Ismael. There it sat, sandwiched between Henriette and Juliette, until a reporter from the Jerusalem Post in Israel noticed.
"Totally insensitive," Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League, was quoted as saying. "Hostility to the Jewish people," said Mort Klein of the Zionist Organization of America. For days the Hurricane Center was paralyzed by hundreds of angry e-mails and phone calls.
For the first time in hurricane history, Mayfield skipped the normal procedure and called all the member countries. Israel was erased, replaced by Ivo. "You got to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em" is how he explains it.
Of all the hurricane name requests in the file, Christine Snovell's is perhaps the most compelling. Snovell had driven to Miami the day before Hurricane Andrew hit. She had moved to Virginia on the day of a tornado watch. And then, a sort of ultimate disaster: In 1999 she arrived for a honeymoon in Australia two days before Cyclone Rona hit and had to escape with her groom to a nearby mall. "I spent thousands of dollars to go to Gap in Australia," she recalled.
"I don't want to say Mother Nature owes me," she wrote to the center three year ago, "but I feel I am due something!"