July 26, 2004 -- As late summer drags toward fall, unlucky East Coast residents occasionally host guests with names like Arlene, or Bonnie, or Earl who rip the roofs from their homes, soak their property with thousands of gallons of water and leave destruction in their wake. It's not a house party, and the guests are obviously not humans. So who gives hurricanes those goofy people names anyway?
Every year, the National Hurricane Center releases a list of potential hurricane names for the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season. It's an eclectic mix of short, distinctive names designed to be easily pronounced and culturally sensitive.
"The names can't be offensive to other countries, and they're supposed to be short so they're not likely to get garbled in a newscast," said Frank Lepore of the National Hurricane Center.
The initial idea behind naming hurricanes came about in the 1950s as a means of streamlining an older system that used numeric latitude and longitude designations to identify storms. The new system was intended to ease communication issues with the clunky numeric names, and initially storms in the United States were given female names only.
In 1978, the naming system went global when a pattern for naming storms was established by the World Meteorological Organization, a division of the United Nations. The WMO divided the world into six regions based on geographic areas that typically share weather patterns, and each region devised its own naming rules.
The United States was placed in Regional Association IV, which includes 25 nations in North America, the Caribbean and South America. The member countries created a six-year supply of names that has been used ever since.
The names were put into six alphabetical lists that alternate male and female names to prevent gender bias, and the lists were put into use on a rotating basis. Every six years a list is repeated, so the 2004 list of names, beginning with Alex and ending with Walter, will be used again in 2010.
There will never be a hurricane Xerxes or Zane. The letters Q, U, X, Y and Z were exempted from the list because of a dearth of names that begin with those letters.
"They also included three female and three alternate male names for each letter to allow for names that get retired, so they worried about coming up with enough names that start with letters like 'Q' and 'X,' " Lepore said.
Hurricanes that cause extreme damage, like the $30 billion tally for Hurricane Andrew in 1992, have their names retired to prevent confusion in scientific literature and legal proceedings such as insurance claims. The country that feels the brunt of the damage can choose to retire the name. After hurricane Andrew ravaged the coast of south Florida in 1992, the name "Andrew" was retired and replaced by "Alex" for future name rotations.
"If another Andrew came along and caused a lot of damage, you could see the potential for a lot of confusion," Lepore said.
In the average year, about 10 named storms will pop up within Region IV, leaving many of the names at the end of the alphabet unused. So will those names like Wilfred and Wanda ever make it into the rotation?
"Well, no one has accused of systematically discriminating against the last half of the alphabet, so I don't think the system is going to change," Lepore said. "It may not be a perfect system, but if it ain't broke, we're not going to fix it."
And the names of the potential 2004 hurricanes?
2004 Atlantic Hurricane Names
Alex Bonnie Charley Danielle Earl Frances Gaston Hermine Ivan Jeanne Karl Lisa Matthew Nicole Otto Paula Richard Shary Tomas Virginie Walter