With the 2015 Atlantic hurricane season ramping up, the tiny island of Dominica has already been slammed by Tropical Storm Erika, leaving at least 20 dead and setting the country’s development agenda back by as many years. While meteorologists are predicting a relatively calm year, that devastation and the recent anniversary of Hurricane Katrina are heart-rending reminders of just how capricious and cruel hurricanes can be.
Not since 1979 has that cruelty been associated exclusively with traditionally feminine names. Today, hurricane names are chosen by the World Meteorological Organization each year using a system that alternates alphabetically between predetermined male and female names (no, they don’t take name requests, though they receive hundreds each year). The result is a gender-balanced rundown of tropical tyrants. This year, we’ve already seen Ana, Bill, Claudette, and Danny. But a look back at the history of hurricane naming shows that tropical storms that developed over the Atlantic Ocean were, for a time, strictly female.
For several hundreds of years, Caribbean islanders named storms after the patron saint of the calendar day on which they struck. “San Filipe the First” and “San Filipe the Second” both hit Puerto Rico on September 13 — in 1876 and 1928, respectively. At the end of the 19th Century, meteorologist Clement Wragge proposed naming storms after letters in the Greek alphabet, but the idea didn’t catch on until World War II — for Army and Navy meteorologists, more succinct names offered an easy way to transmit information over short-wave radio. In 1953, after a brief two-year period of using the Greek alphabet, meteorologists scrapped the idea and began using only English-language female names.
Why feminize a weather system that carries with it the potential to wreak havoc? The maritime tradition of labeling the sea as female might have played a role. The book Storm by George R. Stewart offers another possible explanation. Written in 1941 and popular at the time, it tells the story of a tropical storm named “Maria” that made landfall on the coast of California and caused widespread devastation. It’s also possible that Army and Navy meteorologists, in a questionably affectionate gesture, may have named the deadly storms after sweethearts back home.
Female-only hurricane naming persisted until a growing number of women breaking into meteorology in the mid-1970’s shed light on the inherently sexist practice. Not only were hurricanes referred to as “she” by the media, they were also described using clichés of supposedly feminine behaviors, sometimes “teasing,” or “flirting,” with coastlines. But the push to use male names was met with outrage cloaked in the fear that male names wouldn’t inspire enough caution. A piece in The Houston Post, published on January 4, 1977, reads, “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.”
In 1978, the weather community agreed to include male names on the roster, citing pressure from individuals and groups like the National Organization for Women. The first male-named hurricane in the system, “Bob,” developed in July 1979 and made landfall on the Louisiana coastline. In a seething essay for the Houston Chronicle, columnist Joe Doggett wrote, “I am insulted and offended by this sell-out labeling of storms. “Bob” rather than “Barbara” or “Brenda” or “Betsy” typifies the lack of character that seems to be stifling the ’70s.” He went on to write, “Whoever insisted that a proportionate number of tropical storms must now sprout whiskers certainly couldn’t be from around here … The storm, for better or worse, is a lady. Bob, the first manchild of the National Hurricane Center, marks the first time ever that seafarers must wait to receive a gentleman caller.”
After more than 30 years with the gender-balanced hurricane naming system, a recent study found that Doggett and other skeptics might have been way off-the-mark. Data published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014 suggests that, ironically, female-named hurricanes have been subconsciously perceived as less threatening by the public, leading to less preparedness and, in turn, causing more damage. But adopting an all-male cast of storms might not be a valid way to more safely meet this year’s hurricane season. The findings have been met with skepticism, given that they include the years between 1950 and 1978, when all hurricanes were assigned female names.