A Storm By Any Other Name

My friend Katrina shared the shock and sadness we all felt when a Category 5 hurricane devastated New Orleans in 2005. Like so many of us, she donated to the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity to help the survivors displaced by the natural disaster, and to rebuild a future for the families that lost loved ones during the brutal storm and flooding.

“I know that my own situation,” she admitted years later, “is trivial compared to what the Gulf Coast victims went through. But, I do wish that my name, the beautiful name I loved all my life, hadn’t become associated in the public’s mind—and my own—with pain and death.” I nodded my understanding. We had enjoyed a family drive through scenic Mississippi and Alabama in 1968, and had repeated the journey in 1970, only a year after Hurricane Camille had bulldozed through the picturesque coast; decimating homes, businesses, beaches, and parklands. Unsurprisingly, we discovered that the locals, in their heartbreak, had loudly bonded the lovely name Camille with angry curses.

The National Hurricane Center of the NOAA explains that “the use of short, distinctive names in written as well as spoken communications is quicker and less subject to error than the older, more cumbersome latitude-longitude identification methods.” During and after World War II, the practice of naming storms--especially after women--rapidly grew, and was formally adopted by the World Meteorological Association in the early 1950s. Men’s names were only added to the list as an “equal rights” gesture in 1979. Today, the Meteorological Association establishes the list of names that will be bestowed on these damaging weather patterns, which bring destruction and death around the world; and, for those who are unlucky enough to share the names given, a lifetime reminder of the horrors that beset us vulnerable humans.

Weather modification is still in its infancy, and our atmosphere, with or without climate change, will continue to batter us with natural events that risk our safety and our lives. We should respect nature’s fury, study hier [sic] tantrums, and engage in preventive efforts to promote the safety of living beings on Earth. What we shouldn’t do, no matter how convenient it may seem, is associate names belonging to living beings with nature’s unfortunate events. The imminent nor’easter “Stella” that is bearing down on the East Coast today will hopefully pass into the Atlantic without incident. But, if “Stella” does leave victims in “her” wake, her namesakes (and women in general) will take a hit as well.

The World Meteorological Organization Tropical Cyclone Programme has developed an additional list of names in case there are more than 21 hurricanes in the Atlantic in a year—using the Greek alphabet. Letters may be one option to consider instead; storms can be baptized with a memorable handle such as “Gamma 2018.” We may not be able to prevent a blizzard, hurricane, or flood; but with Mad Men aplenty in the US, we could certainly find recognizable monikers for weathercasters to use for alerts, names that don’t tie a woman or man’s most basic identity to a dangerous or tragic occurrence.

Pi 2017, anyone?

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