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Bill Maxwell

An innocent name, but a deadly storm

During hurricane season, some of us old Floridians experience mild dread when we recall the names of certain hurricanes. For us, there's something in a name.

Each hurricane season, I automatically have awful memories of Donna. Do not misunderstand. We old-timers are not wimps. We simply have a healthy respect for the destructive power of hurricanes, and we remember their names.

Outsiders question why many old-timers do not evacuate when hurricanes approach. The main reason for staying is simple: If you live in Florida, you know the day will come when you will come face-to-face with the wrath of the "Big One." More storms hit Florida than any other state.

We have adopted a kind of fatalism, a survivalist attitude that enables us to see beyond a storm. We will rebuild and return to our routines until next time. Outsiders can go home, but we residents are stuck. Getting through the storm — stocking up on food and water, buying plywood and generators, repairing our roofs, cutting down damaged trees and repairing power and telephone lines — is our lot.

For me, every hurricane is a potential Donna, and I prepare. From Sept. 9-11, 1960, Donna sent tens of thousands of Floridians fleeing for safety. It was the first hurricane I vividly remember from start to finish. I was living with my family in Fort Lauderdale. Before it hit the Florida Keys, reporters referred to Donna as "a killer storm." It had been blamed for the crash of a commercial plane and the death of 63 passengers.

You don't quickly forget that.

When Donna slammed into the Keys, forecasters predicted that the mainland was next. My mother panicked. Divorced, she had six children to protect by herself. At 14, I was the oldest. As Donna refugees, we packed up and caught a Greyhound bus inland to Mascotte where we camped out with relatives.

The hurricane followed us to Mascotte. It battered and shook the old Cracker house where, in complete darkness, we crouched in corners and hid under beds. Everyone prayed. In the morning, we saw the devastation: Debris was everywhere, vehicles were crushed by tree limbs and the shabbier homes, all belonging to relatives, had been destroyed.

Even then, I saw the irony between the innocence of the name Donna and the terror the storm created. How, I wondered, could something so sweet-sounding be so destructive?

I learned many years later that the contemporary naming of hurricanes is the result of a thoughtful process. For centuries, according to the National Weather Service, many hurricanes in the West Indies were named after the particular saint's day on which a storm occurred. This practice gave us names such as Hurricane Santa Ana, Hurricane San Felipe the First and Hurricane San Felipe the Second.

In the United States, the weather services started naming hurricanes during the mid 20th century, using the military's phonetic alphabet: Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy and so on. That system was dropped in 1953, and the use of only female names was adopted.

Why? Lore has it that female names were chosen because of the gender's volatile nature. Some sources claim that the man who came up with the idea probably had endured a nasty divorce and wanted to get back at all women.

Who knows? It is clear, however, that storm trackers wanted as little confusion as possible when communicating with the frightened public, preferring short, distinctive names.

In 1978, feminists demanded that the weather services stop using only female names. The next year, forecasters began alternating male and female names for storms in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

Weather people are a sensitive bunch when it comes to names, so sensitive that the names of hurricanes are retired and not used again for at least 10 years — if ever — if storms cause widespread damage or injure or kill many people.

We may never have another hurricane named Katrina or Andrew or Camille or David. So, what's in a name? Everything, if it's the name of an unusually destructive hurricane.

An innocent name, but a deadly storm 06/04/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 7, 2010 5:55pm]

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