Updated: Sep 30
In the late summer of 2017, the Eastern Seaboard of the United States was hit by two destructive hurricanes back to back, Hurricanes Irma and Maria. At that time, numerous friends reached out to express their annoyance that newscasters were mispronouncing my name.
It's OK, I said, this hurricane is an angry white woman, and ER-mah is the correct pronunciation of her name. I was able to obtain the official hurricane list for the 2017 Atlantic Basin from the National Hurricane Center and lo and behold ER-mah was the pronunciation assigned to the hurricane by the World Meteorological Organization. Hurricanes were a part of our lives throughout my childhood in the Coastal Bend Region of South Texas, 40 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. We experienced several major storms, and each and every one of them had a woman's name.
We are smack in the middle of the Atlantic Hurricane Season (June 1 - November 30), so it's a good time to share with you what I learned about how hurricanes get their names. Information on the conditions that create hurricanes and how they go from tropical depressions to storms to hurricanes is explained with simplicity and elegance in this two-minute, click here, not below, that's just a screenshot.
The first recorded usage of the word huracán, translated into English as hurricane, was in the mid-1500s in the writings of Spanish conquistadores who learned the word for storm from the Tainos, part of the vast Arawak tribes, the native people that lived in the Caribbean. This article in The Smithsonian Magazine is filled with information about the Tainos and their many contributions to food crop cultivation. Numerous English words, like canoe, hammock, and tobacco, come directly from their language.
During World War II, US Navy meteorologists started naming typhoons in the Pacific after their wives and girlfriends. Several other ways of naming hurricanes have come and gone. For many years Atlantic hurricanes were given the name of the Saint honored on the day the hurricane first made landfall. The hurricane that struck Puerto Rico on September 13, 1876 (the Feast Day of San Felipe), was named the San Felipe Hurricane. In 1928 another storm battered Puerto Rico on the same day, September 13, and it became Hurricane San Felipe II.
For some years, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) used the storm's changing latitude-longitude position as its name. Something like this: 40° 41′ 21.4" N 74° 02′ 40.2" W (DMS). Not surprising, this proved cumbersome and confusing and subject to miscommunication, and so this system was nixed. NOAA then adopted the WWII phonetic alphabet – Able, Baker, Charlie, to name hurricanes, but that proved unsatisfactory. NOAA's National Hurricane Center then reverted to the tradition of using "girl" names staring with Maria, the heroine of a 1941 novel "Storm" by George Rippey Stewart.
As the feminist movement gained traction in the United States, demands grew to name hurricanes after men. In 1969 the National Organization for Women passed a motion at its national conference that called upon the National Hurricane Center to stop naming storms and cyclones using only female names. Roxcy Bolton, a Florida native and a women's rights activist who pushed hard on this issue for years and even proposed replacing the word hurricane with himacane. A decade later, good 'ole Bob made his debut in 1979 as the first male storm.
I'm sorry I never met Roxcy Bolton, who fought so many battles challenging male domination. She merited an obituary in the New York Times three years ago. "Roxcy Bolton, a pioneering and tempestuous Florida feminist who was credited with founding the nation's first rape treatment center and who helped persuade national weather forecasters not to name tropical storms after only women, died on May 17 in Coral Gables, Fla. She was 90."
It is an inspiration to learn all that she did in her lifetime. Adding men's names to the roster of hurricanes was just one example. She was instrumental in elevating the prevention and treatment of rape within law enforcement and in the medical profession, and she fought for maternity leave for flight attendants who lost their jobs when they became pregnant.
Women hurricanes have been and continue to be fodder for stereotypes and jokes giving comedians ample material, typically demeaning of women. There websites dedicated to hurricane jokes. Here's one.
Since 1979, the naming of tropical storms, typhoons, and hurricanes became the responsibility of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The WMO is an agency of the United Nations, and the UN's scientific voice on weather, climate and water resources. Among its many responsibilities is maintaining the six lists of names for the Atlantic Basin. There are no hurricane names starting with the letters U, X, Y, Q, and Z as first names with these letters are less common than other names. In this rotation system the hurricane names of 2020 will be used again in 2026.
Hurricanes are assigned easily remembered first names in English, Spanish, and French to reflect the backgrounds of the people who live in the countries in the Atlantic or along the Atlantic seaboard. Typhoons and cyclones in other parts of the world have names consistent with the backgrounds of residents of those geographical locations. This blog is only about Atlantic hurricanes.
The official hurricane list is only changed when a storm's name is retired. This is done out of respect for victims and their families when a storm claims many lives or is extremely destructive. So, there will never be another Hurricane Katrina or Sandy. And 2017, a terrible hurricane year, saw four names retired: Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate. Based on the six-year rotation cycle, the hurricane names of 2017 will be used again in 2023, with the substitution of four new hurricane names: Harold, Idalia, Margot, and Nigel, as noted in this chart.
Due to climate change, storms are becoming more frequent and deadly, and already the list of 21 names for the 2020 Atlantic Storms have been exhausted. Additional storms will be assigned names from the Greek alphabet.
Closing with a note of sadness and paying tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who died on Friday, September 18 on Rosh Hashanah.
"A Jewish teaching says those who die just before the Jewish new year [Rosh Hashanah, which began Friday night] are the ones God has held back until the last moment because they were needed most and were the most righteous. And so it was that RBG died as the sun was setting last night."
~Nina Totenberg, NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent
Thank you, Notorious RBG. You are loved and will always be remembered. "Fight for the things that you care about," she said, "but do so in a way that will lead others to join you."
May her memory be a blessing.
This painting was done by the multi-talented artist, Joan Baez, best known for her decades-long career as a singer and activist. It is part of her Mischief Makers Series, portraits of people she admires.