Archivists and librarians spend much of their time sorting the names of people, groups and places. Authority control systems are an integral part of processing archival materials and manuscripts, and an important area of innovation, as we’re seeing with work around the EAC-CPF.
Hurricane names represent an interesting alternate approach. As described on the National Weather Service website, there was once a practice of naming tropical storms and hurricanes in the West Indies after a particular saint’s feast day. Given that hurricane season in the North Atlantic (generally from June through November) would encompass the same limited set of saint’s days, the same name could be attributed to more than one storm system.
The first hurricane named this way was Hurricane of San Bartolme in 1568, and earlier storms were named years later by historians. Two major hurricanes named after San Felipe occurred on exactly the same day, but 52 years apart, in 1876 and 1928.
As Wayne Neely writes in The Great Hurricane of 1780, “This system for naming them was haphazard and not really a system at all.”
The Great Hurricane of 1780 is also known as Hurricane San Calixto II. It’s thought to be the deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record, responsible for, among other things, the sinking of 40 French ships involved in the American Revolutionary War, with 4,000 souls lost. You may then be left wondering whether it’s named after Pope Callisto II, or if it’s the second hurricane named after the Feast of Pope Saint Callisto I. We’re not sure.
The practice of naming hurricanes after women began in 1953 in the United States, and in 1978-1979, male names were added to the storm lists. These six-year storm name lists for Atlantic hurricanes are developed by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and each year’s list includes 21 names. If a given year has more than 21 named storms, the Greek alphabet is used. Then each list repeats every seventh year. So, these names can recur, perhaps with some of the same ambiguity as Hurricane San Felipe. Remember Tropical Storm Alberto from May, notable as the earliest-forming tropical storm in the Atlantic in nearly 10 years? It was also the name of a tropical storm that caused considerable damage in Florida and Georgia in 1994.
For certain calamitous storms, the name is retired. There are currently 76 names on the “retired” list, including the notorious Andrew, Donna, and Katrina. The list of names is controlled by the WMO, and given recent events, we suspect they will retire Sandy too at their next annual meeting.
For an inside view of what’s involved in search and rescue operations following a major hurricane, take a look at this transcript of a 2005 interview after Hurricane Katrina with Commander Meredith Austin, provided through ArchiveGrid by the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office.
“You know in an average hurricane we’ll fly out to the impacted area and get RV’s if we have to because it’s not that you want to be pampered or anything but when it’s really hot and it’s really humid and you want people to work in really harsh conditions for 12 to 14 or 18 hours a day, you’ve got to have a place for them to recover or they’re going to be no good to you the next day. So to have them sleeping out in tents we have to worry about fire ants and your stuff getting wet. You can do that for a couple of days, anyone can, but we’re here for the long term. There are going to be Strike Team folks down in these areas for probably a year.”