How did Hurricane Irma get its name? Find out the surprising reasons why hurricanes are named and how their names are chosen.

September 07, 2017

“While Houston is cleaning up after a big hurricane, Miami is bracing itself for a different big hurricane.”

Pre-1950s, that’s what the headlines might have read. It wasn’t until 1953 that the U.S. officially named storms.

Why Do We Name Hurricanes?

Naming storms dates back hundreds of years. The reasons are evident: It makes it easier to keep track of multiple storms happening at the same time and giving them names connects better with people, explains Gerry Bell, Ph.D., the lead seasonal hurricane forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “There have been many years with three hurricanes out there at the same time,” Bell says. “It’s rare, but not unheard of.”

However, only women’s names were used until the government bowed to pressure from interest groups in the late 70s and added men into the mix (certain commentators at the time threw a tantrum, claiming that only females invoke the level of fury befitting a deadly storm).

How Do They Name Hurricanes?

From at least the 1800s, some hurricanes were named after saints. (Hurricane Santa Ana is the namesake storm that struck Puerto Rico on July 26, 1825.) Today, the process is far from random. Tropical storms are named when their maximum sustained wind speed is greater than 39 miles per hour. They graduate to hurricanes when wind speeds exceed 74 miles per hour. When this happens, the Switzerland-based World Meteorological Organization does the naming, pulling from fixed, agreed upon lists. For instance, storms that originate in the Atlantic get one of 21 alphabetized names that switch off by gender. In 2017, we’ve already ticked through Arlene, Bret, Cindy, Don, Emily, Franklin and Gert before arriving at Harvey and Irma. There are six such lists which repeat every seventh year. (See you in 2023, Arlene.) Should the Atlantic continue to roil this year, expect to see warnings for Jose, Katia, Lee, Maria, Nate, Ophelia, Philippe, Rina, Sean, Tammy, Vince, and Whitney.

Why Do Hurricane Names Get Retired?

When a storm is particularly destructive, its name is retired. Eighty-two storms have this distinction. We will never again have an Andrew (1992), Fran (1996), Juan (2003), Katrina (2005), Irene (2011), Sandy (2012), Ingrid (2013), Erika (2015), Joaquin (2015), Matthew (2016), or Otto (2016). (While he’s not involved with making this decision, Bell concedes ‘Harvey’ is likely a candidate for retirement.)

What Is the Next Hurricane Name?

Though Hurricane Irma is currently dominating the news cycle, meteorologists are also tracking two other storms that are gaining strength in the Atlantic—Hurricane Jose and Hurricane Katia. 

And remember: A hurricane by any other name is just as destructive. While the areas around the U.S. are visited by hurricanes, those same storms are called ‘typhoons’ in the western North Pacific, ‘cyclones’ in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, ‘severe tropical cyclones’ in the western South Pacific and southeast Indian Ocean, and ‘tropical cyclones’ in the southwest Indian Ocean.

For more information about how to stay safe during inclement weather, check out this emergency preparedness checklist

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