When a storm is strong enough that will be remembered for generations to come, the World Meteorological Association retires its name, a move akin to a retired jersey number. The name “Katrina,” for instance, is no longer up for grabs.
The practice of naming hurricanes has a long and complex history, beginning with hundreds of years of saints’ names, then nearly 40 years of sexism and once bringing in Greek letters.
The West Indies started the whole thing by naming hurricanes after the saint’s day on which they occurred for several hundred years. There was the violent Hurricane Santa Ana, which hit Puerto Rico in 1825, and two destructive San Felipes.
In the 1940s, the American Weather Bureau caught on to the idea, realizing that naming a storm would make it easier to describe on short-wave radio. Hurricanes and other tropical storms soon bore the names of real people -- but only one gender -- most of them named after girlfriends and wives of Army and Navy meteorologists.
British Web site Weather Online describes why hurricanes had only female names: “In that era when political correctness had never been heard of, the exclusively male meteorological community... considered female names appropriate for such unpredictable and dangerous phenomena.”
(“Oh, Irene,” they reasoned, “stop being so mercurial! You remind me of my wife.”)
Female meteorologists soon put an end to that, however, and from 1978 onward, male names were added to the rotation.
Now, each year’s names are assigned alphabetically, beginning with “A,” so the first letter of a hurricane name can tell you how many storms have come before it this year. We’re at “I,”meaning there have been 15 storms already in 2011. The year 2005 had so many hurricanes that meteorologists ran out of English letters and had to use the Greek alphabet.
Sometimes, the storms live up to their names. Hurricane Bertha, which struck in the mid-’90s, had a big name and turned out to be a much bigger storm than the measly one meteorologists had anticipated.
And sometimes they don’t. Hurricanes Bill and Mitch, hardly violent names (Bill and Mitch mean ‘protection’ and ‘like God, respectively), were killer storms.
So what about Irene?
When she has hit before, in 2005 and in 1999, she was no more than a Category 2. The name means ‘peace,’ after all.
But meteorologists are now saying Irene could be a Category 3, with 65 million people in its path. Unpredictable and dangerous? Irene, you could very well be.
More Hurricane Irene coverage from The Washington Post: