Well, blow me down Hurricanes: Naming big storms is now an international affair -- with a touch of political correctness.

September 08, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance

THE RAIN IS Tess, and the fire's Joe, the song writer said. And if enough tropical storms develop in the North Atlantic in 1999, the 13th big wind will be called Maria.

The next named storm in the current hurricane season after Fran and Gustav will be Hortense, of all things. There's also a tropical storm Fabian in our future in 1997, a Lenny and a Tammy in 1998.

Modern weather forecasters and civil authorities around the world have embraced the practice of naming tropical systems when they reach a prescribed level of violence.

They have found that it enhances their ability to get the public's attention when such storms threaten. It also helps to avoid confusion about warnings and advisories when more than one tropical storm threatens a given region.

And after the storms pass, their names survive to remind residents of the personal grief and the terrible destruction such events can bring.

The storm-naming process is now carried out by a network of national and international committees, all coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), an arm of the United Nations based in Geneva, Switzerland.

People have long had a need to attach names to the storms that periodically ravaged their homes. Spanish-speaking residents of the Caribbean named the storms for the saints on whose feast days they arrived.

In Puerto Rico, for example, the terrible hurricane of July 26, 1825, was named for Santa Ana. Another blow on Sept. 13, 1876, was named for San Felipe.

But for many years, to the extent that they could be found and tracked at all before satellites and modern communications, the storms were identified by their geographic coordinates, which lent itself to confusion.

It was the U.S. military that first began tagging tropical storms in this century with names ordered in an alphabetical sequence. At first, their imagination went no further than the military-issue Able, Baker, Charlie and so on.

But during World War II, they switched to female names, assigned when the storms reach tropical storm strength: winds of 39 mph.

That practice lasted until the 1970s, when feminists protested. Giving female personalities to violent, destructive and erratic forces, they argued, reinforced ugly stereotypes.

The authorities responded, and today the names of tropical storms here and in most regions of the world follow an alternating sequence of male and female names.

Political correctness has also led authorities in the Americas to incorporate names drawn from the major European cultures in the region - English, French, Spanish and Dutch.

That's the reason why American broadcasters are sometimes forced to get their mouths around some unfamiliar names, like Edouard.

The Atlantic storm lists are drawn up six years in advance by an international committee of meteorological and hydrologic officials named by 25 affected countries.

They do have other work. "Their primary business is the promotion and coordination of actions to mitigate the disasters caused by tropical cyclones, with emphasis on improvement of warning systems and disaster preparedness measures," said Don Vickers, a meteorologist with WMO's World Weather Watch, in Geneva.

Fortunately for the committee members, the Atlantic list recycles every six years. This year's list will be used again in 2002.

"The only decision is whether they want to make a change," said Vickers. If a hurricane has caused heavy damage or many deaths, that name may be withdrawn.

The substitute name must have the same first letter and gender, but "it's not usually a difficult decision," he said.

After Andrew's rampage across South Florida in 1992, the U.S. representative asked that the name be withdrawn from the 1998 list.

Storm-naming practices in the eight other cyclone-prone regions around the world vary somewhat. In the southwestern Indian Ocean, Vickers said, "Madagascar selected the names for a number of years, and after that, the Seychelles.

"So there you would find that for a period of a couple of years, all the names are typical of Madagascar."

Occasionally, a hurricane will wander from one region to another and change its identity.

For example, if Bill - the second named storm of the 1997 Atlantic season - crosses from the Caribbean to the Pacific, and survives to become the fourth named storm of the eastern North Pacific, it would undergo a meteorological sex change and become Dolores.

In the western North Pacific, where tropical cyclones are called typhoons, they are provided with one set of mostly English names by the United States. But those that approach the Philippines will also acquire a local Filipino name.

"The Filipino media wish to have names familiar to their own listeners," Vickers said.

Storms that cross into the Bay of Bengal will get an added numerical designation incorporating the year and storm sequence. The first storm of the 1991 season there, for example, was Bob 9101.

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