Naming Storms

Familiar titles turn natural disasters into singular entities rather than part of the larger climate crisis

Full-text audio version of this essay.

From my airplane window, the city of Brisbane was a big brown smudge. It was December 2019, shortly before the onset of what has lately been referred to as “The Great Pandemic,” and the “Black Summer” bushfires — already a few months old, though not yet known by this name — were generating a vast blanket of smoke that stretched from Australia’s east coast to New Zealand, wound across the Pacific to Chile, funneled south of Africa, and finally, after several weeks’ delay, reached back to Australia’s west coast. I sat guiltily above the indefinite city, knowing how international flights like this one were contributing to the fires beneath us. But even from my vantage point in the sky, this was a disaster without limit. It couldn’t be pointed at. 

If you were somewhere in the Western Hemisphere, and you walked into a room full of strangers talking about Katrina, Harvey, Mitchell, or Maria, you might know who they were referring to. If you were from the Eastern Hemisphere, you might introduce Fanapi, Tracey, or Rai. Naming storms is an imaginative tool, one that has mitigated immeasurable suffering by facilitating easy communication during disaster preparation and response. But even beyond processes of labelling, indexing, and cataloguing, naming provides an apparatus for delineating errant natural processes, and reifying them as entities. To refer to a disaster by name is to be guided by a subtle imaginative infrastructure in which events are set apart as exceptional, individual, nearly autonomous. This reaffirms the normalcy that has been excepted. But a disaster like “Black Summer,” and others like it, exceeds our capacity to be contained by a title, pointing to a new normal that won’t yield to a single name. 

In October 1526, a storm began developing in the Caribbean, moving east toward what are currently known as the Leeward Islands and the Virgin Islands, and eventually striking Puerto Rico with such force that a large part of San Juan was devastated, churches collapsed, crops destroyed. While few records exist that detail precisely what transpired and who was affected, what is certain is that it happened on the fourth of October, the Feast of San Francisco. “San Francisco” would become one of the earliest records of a named storm in the Western Hemisphere. At that time, the term “huracán [hurricane]” — thought to be a blend of the Taíno juracán and the Mayan hunraqan — was still not yet used widely among Spanish colonists, but the system for naming them was. Tropical storms would trudge anonymously until they happened upon land or a ship, at which point the disaster would be named after the Saint’s day upon which it occurred; “San Francisco” would have taken on other names as it passed Puerto Rico, making landfall elsewhere. 

In the early colonial period, what would now be a single storm system was a plurality of storms

As communications between different regions in the colonial Atlantic became faster — with postal services and formal trade routes — the continuities between geographically and temporally distributed disasters became apparent, demanding that they be stabilized as a single force. Clement Wragge, a 19th Century British-Australian meteorologist, began the tradition of identifying storms with discrete names. Beginning with Biblical figures and beings from Polynesian mythology, Wragge gave storms names that were independent of calendrical and geographic markers. Until then a storm had been identified by its effects; now, it could be conceived of as a cause. Wragge would inspire the protagonist of George Stewart’s 1941 novel Storm, a junior meteorologist who names potential storms after his ex-girlfriends, noting that “each storm was really an individual and that he could more easily say… ‘Antonia’ than ‘the low-pressure centre which was yesterday in latitude one-seventy-five East, longitude forty-two North.’”

During World War II, the U.S. Air Force and Navy meteorologists stationed in the Pacific (who, reportedly, were avid readers of George Stewart’s novel) began naming tropical cyclones after their wives, rather than the phonetic alphabet. In 1953, giving storms feminine-coded names became official U.S. Weather Bureau and World Meteorological Organization policy, and six lists of names began rotating yearly to identify the seasonal storms. Determining these names was not an entirely simple matter: For one thing, it required eliminating any concrete associations that might mislead the public (no Hurricane Dawns, Aprils, or Montanas). The patriarchal naming system brought ire from activists like Roxcy Bolton, who eventually convinced Richard A. Frank, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to include masculine-coded names as well. (The first one to hit was “Bob.”) Even this decision was controversial: In 1986, the Washington Post declared, “Somehow many of the men’s names don’t convey either the romance or the urgency that circumstances might warrant,” while a 2014 study argued that hurricanes with feminine-coded names have historically been deadlier, because people take them less seriously.

All the same, names emerged as a tool that could facilitate communication about complex meteorological processes. A name, independent of geographic or calendric referents, heightens interest in preparing for a storm, and offers timely communication while a storm is underway; it suggests a greater sense of urgency, and reminds us of nature’s capacity for destruction. It also generates a sense of order and coherence. In the early colonial period, what would now be a single storm system was a plurality of storms, the dates and sites of its landfall proximate, but unrelated events. By the mid-20th Century, these discrete dates and sites of landfall became footprints along the path of a various, but discrete entity. The name was a tool for conceiving, of reifying a process as a thing by isolating it from its background. A named storm is an agent — a potentially malevolent entity moving through an otherwise orderly world. 

The practice of naming has since extended to other disasters. Fires are named according to nearby geographical referents — despite burning across 153,336 acres, California’s devastating Camp Fire in 2018 was so named because it began near Camp Creek Road. In 2002, the Meteorology Institute of the Free University, Berlin, began an adopt-a-vortex program, encouraging people to participate in naming to raise public awareness about storm danger. Noting that they kill more people in North America than do hurricanes, some have demanded that heatwaves be named as a means of better preparation. The Weather Channel decided in 2012 that it would bestow names of its choosing upon winter storms, arguing that “a storm with a name takes on a personality all its own.” When the station collaborated with the 2013–2014 graduating class of The Bozeman High School, Montana, to devise the list of names for the 2016 season, the world ended up with a winter storm named Yolo. 

A 2014 study argued that hurricanes with feminine-coded names have historically been deadlier, because people take them less seriously

Conceiving of a disaster as a discrete entity offers a means for psychologically managing the impact of aberrant natural forces. Writing about the Oakland Firestorm of 1991, where she and many others lost their houses, disaster studies scholar Susanna Hoffman notes how she and other people in Berkeley and Oakland developed symbolic tools to “defang” an environment turned hostile. In addition to concrete acts, like rebuilding symbolically important sites, this can entail imaginatively consigning a disaster to history. A named disaster can be understood as singular, with a specific beginning and end; acts of commemoration and reflection help file it away safely into the past. To name a disaster is to make it a singular evil; an act of nature indicating a landscape of generalizing disorder can then become a one-in-a-hundred-year event, part of a temporal pattern that seems intelligible, even normal. USWB and WMO policy seems to recognize this; if a tropical storm is particularly severe, its name will be retired from the lists of available names, both as a mark of respect for the loss it produced, and out of recognition that the disaster’s name now stands alone in history. For this reason, we’ll never meet another Katrina, or Maria, or Mitch, though we’re all too likely to encounter storms like them.

On September 19, 1985, Mexico City was struck with an 8.1 magnitude earthquake. Independent reporting suggests that 40,000 people died. The state, grappling with the political fallout, attempted to develop a “culture of prevention,” using the anniversary as a day to both remember and prepare for earthquakes. “Diecinueve de Septiembre” was written into Mexican history through various yearly commemorative practices, the most significant of which was a commemorative evacuation. In the morning of every September 19, the earthquake early warning system would sound, and schools, business, and private residences would conduct an evacuation drill. But on September 19, 2017, the alert went off twice: once as planned, and again, two hours later, to warn of another approaching earthquake. Thinking the alert was yet another drill, many remained in their buildings until the city began to collapse. Since then, the term “19s” has named three things: the 1985 earthquake, the 2017 earthquake, and the baffling, absurd fact of coincidence. Where “19s” once gave the disaster a beginning and ending, the term now denotes an event reemerging from the safety of the past.

The fires of Australia’s “Black Summer” similarly exceed their name. Less a coherent entity than an indefinite condition, they burned nonstop from June 2019 to May 2020, producing their own weather systems, which enabled them to move against the wind, and generating dry lightning that permitted them to propagate themselves. Ultimately, the fires burned through at least 21 percent of the country’s forest, razing thousands of buildings and incinerating billions of organisms. Hundreds of species lost over 80 percent of their habitat; the fires’ endless ash even smothered several species of freshwater fish. The onset of the fires was one of the first times the “Catastrophic” fire risk rating was deployed since its creation following a fire season in 2009. A category “off the conventional scale,” it indicates the “worst possible conditions,” in which fleeing is the only option. Since then, calls have been made for a category beyond catastrophic. 

Names emerged to facilitate communication about complex meteorological processes. They also generate a sense of order and coherence

While the name “Black Summer” might seem to denote a particularly volatile fire season, it is better understood as an extended period in which fire was both figure and ground — a disaster that became the norm. Successive federal governments have built Australia’s national economy around resource extraction and, particularly since 2013, vociferously resisted a move to renewable energy forms. Moreover, conservative state and federal governments have consistently underfunded land and forest management. The “Black Summer” is rooted in these decisions, but it is more than just the outcome of a linear history of mismanagement. Far exceeding the temporal designation of their name, the “Black Summer” really names 11 months of waiting for fires to stop reproducing themselves. If naming does the imaginative work of bounding, reifying, and defanging, the fires of the “Black Summer,” and the smoky gauze that wrapped itself around the world, defy this capacity.

Similarly, the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season, rather than denoting a period in which hurricanes were likely, refers to a blustery expanse of time and space in which storms were only occasionally absent. The most active season on record, it featured 30 named storms, 14 hurricanes, and seven major hurricanes. The 2020 storms ran through the year’s full list of names and began drawing upon the Greek alphabet, an auxiliary list the WMO kept on hand but had only used once before. Eta and Iota, the fifth and ninth storms of the second list, were so destructive that their names warranted retiring, as per WMO’s naming system. And since this would require eliminating whole letters from the backup list, the WMO retired the naming system itself, replacing the Greek alphabet with a second list of names. Since then, the National Hurricane Centre has extended “hurricane season” by two weeks; and some scientists have recently begun wondering about the possibility of a Category 6 Hurricane. Storm overlapping with storm, the season continuously exhausted our capacity to contain it. 

The names applied to the current pandemic provide an accelerated account of the attempt, and ultimate failure, to contain mass-scale disaster. Two years ago, “the COVID-19 pandemic” referred to a moment in history. Right now we are living through its slow stabilization into what we understand life to be. Initial variants were named, like early storms, after the location in which they developed; the WHO stopped place-based naming when it realized the name “Indian variant” is only a few steps away from “Kung Flu,” and that no variant ever stayed put for very long. Now, like the excess of the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season, variants are named with letters of the Greek alphabet. Each name attempts to turn its referent into a discrete appendix in an ongoing series, simultaneously adding to the pandemic while promising its conclusion. 

We’ll never meet another Katrina, or Maria, or Mitch, though we’re all too likely to encounter storms like them

Events like 19s, the storms of the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season, and the Black Summer are not singular entities, but irreducibly plural, propagating across time and space, refusing disambiguation. Figure and ground reverse: instead of discrete aberrations thrown into relief by a neutral background, these events threaten to become conditions, continuums. They don’t so much highlight a widening gap between the normal and the aberrant as indicate that this gap is closing — converging into one disaster that can’t be isolated and localized in a name.

As anyone who has lived through disaster can say, its manifold experiences cannot be contained by a single narrative. The disaster, the storm, the fire, the earthquake, the virus, is just an inflection point upon deep histories of creating and maintaining human difference. The name of any disaster refers to a harrowing divergence of impacts, experiences, and outcomes, belying attempts at summary. How can we talk about processes that refuse a name? We might be inclined to keep adjusting our naming conventions, increasing our scales, adding new categories to at least index those events that outgrow our indices — a fire-scale that includes an “Unfathomable” danger rating beyond “Catastrophic.” However, these strategies would simply strain an imaginative paradigm that has already failed us. As the temporal and geographic scale of these disasters exceed coherence, we are compelled to examine our own sense-making processes. The notion of a disaster that can be an exception to history has itself become historical.

Lachlan Summers is a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, where he researches the political fallout of Mexico City’s repeating earthquakes. He is having an amazing time.