Here Comes the Story of the Herricanes

Every year, starting in late summer and extending through the fall, the North Atlantic Ocean experiences hurricane season. The destruction of some of these storms is hard to fathom; the fallout from big ones, like Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and superstorm Sandy in 2012 are still discussed — and felt — today. But if it weren’t for a change in the weather forecasting industry in the 1970s, we wouldn’t be talking about Hurricane Andrew — and maybe not Sandy — today. Rather, we’d likely be discussing Hurricane Andrea and maybe superstorm Sandra.

Because before the 1979 Hurricane system, the official naming conventions required that the storms only be named after women.

The practice of naming hurricanes began in 1887, thanks to a British meteorologist named Clement Wragge. Wragge began doing so most likely out of appreciation for the storms; as Atlas Obscura notes, “describing storms over Australia, New Zealand, and the Arctic, Wragge originally plucked names from Greek and Roman mythology, then moved on to the names of Pacific Island women whose beauty caught his eye.” But his naming habit was inconsistent and, as a result, it didn’t catch on right away. While his coworkers appreciated that giving a storm a name made it easier to discuss — storms move, and describing them by location, as was the practice, was imprecise — they didn’t see a need to name every storm. And for the next half-century or so, hurricanes and similar storms were given names here and there, but it was hardly common.

World War II changed that. As Atlas Obscura continues, “with Air Force and Navy meteorologists naming tropical cyclones after their wives and girlfriends back home.” While their original motivation was, like Wragge’s, most ornamental than practical, these weathermen (perhaps accidentally) established the value of having an unambiguous way to refer to the various weather-related threats to American ships and planes. So in 1953, the National Weather Service (then known as the United States Weather Bureau), decided to formalize this practice. The Service has given a name to every hurricane since — but, for the first 25 years, only named the storm after women.

Many women were, understandably, not okay with this — hurricanes are destructive storms that cause obscene amounts of damage to communities, and it’s not fair for only one gender to be associated with such devastation. Organized efforts to change the rule began as early as 1969, according to the Washington Post, when “the National Organization for Women at its national conference passed a motion ‘that a communication be sent to National Hurricane Center in Miami asking that hurricanes not be named exclusively female names.'” The effort, led by an activist named Roxcy Bolton, went unanswered, but Bolton persisted. Three years later, in 1972, she took her campaign back to the weather bureau and was again rebuffed — not just by the bureaucrats, but by the meteorologists. It was, they argued, a matter of science — as articulated by a New York Times headline on Bolton’s efforts rang out, “Weather Men Insist Storms Are Feminine.”  And in 1977, the Houston Post argued that psychology — and safety — demanded that the storms be named after women; in an editorial, the paper wondered “would a hurricane with a man’s name convey the same sense of imminent danger as, say, a Hurricane Carla? Chalk it up to the feminine mystique, but it’s doubtful that a National Hurricane Center bulletin that Tropical Storm Al had formed in the Gulf or Hurricane Jake was threatening the Texas Coast would make us run for cover quite as fast.” 

That’s silly, of course, and ultimately, reason won out. In 1979, the National Weather Service began naming every other hurricane after men, starting with Hurricane Bob that July. Over the next decade, a handful of articles still bemoaned the change — but more recent research shows they probably shouldn’t have. In 2014, Kiju Jung, then a doctoral candidate in marketing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, conducted a study to see how those in harm’s way reacted to different hurricanes. What he found, per Smithsonian magazine, was that people tended to underestimate storms that were given feminine names, not the other way around. For example, per Smithsonian, “when other volunteers [  . . ] were provided with a fictional storm and a weather map and asked whether they would choose to evacuate the area or stay behind, for instance, they were more likely to evacuate when Christopher was headed their way rather than Christina.”

Bonus fact: Some of Clement Wragge’s early storm names served a purpose beyond the practical — it also allowed Wragge to have some fun at the expense of politicians he didn’t like. As Atlas Obscura notes in the above-lined article, “when public figures opposed his projects, Wragge tacked their names onto storms, allowing him to take pleasure in reporting certain politicians as “causing great distress,” or “wandering aimlessly about the Pacific.”

From the Archives: The T-Word You Couldn’t Talk About: When the Weather Bureau banned the word “tornado” from forecasts (and why).