Storm surge overruns ABCs

Published Sept. 20, 2005|Updated Oct. 24, 2005

With Rita roaring toward the Gulf of Mexico, only four names are left on this year's storm names list.

Unfortunately, that doesn't mean the hurricane season will end when the list does.

With more than two months to go in the 2005 season _ it ends Nov. 30 _ forecasters are faced with an ominous possibility.

For 52 years, human names have been assigned to identify tropical storms.

Frank Lepore, public affairs officer for the National Hurricane Center in Miami, says this year could be the first time the entire list of 21 names is used up.

If that happens, the center will switch to the Greek alphabet, calling storms Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and so on. (Let's hope they never get that far.)

According to the National Hurricane Center Web site,, in the days before modern storm tracking, major hurricanes were sometimes identified by the saint's feast day on which they struck, such as Hurricane Santa Ana, which devastated Puerto Rico on July 26, 1825.

Or they were simply identified by their dates, like the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, the most intense ever to strike the mainland United States.

In the latter half of the 20th century, as weather forecasting made major leaps, the need arose for a way to distinguish storms. A cumbersome system based on longitude and latitude was used for a while. After World War II, the military Able-Baker-Charley alphabet identified storms for a few years.

In 1953, the National Hurricane Center began using women's names for tropical cyclones. Since 1979, the list has alternated male and female names.

The alphabetical lists have 21 names; the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z are omitted (tough to come up with many "X" names). Six lists are used in rotation, so names reappear every seventh year.

According to the Web site FAQ, the most frequently asked question about storm names is "Can I have a tropical cyclone named for me?"

The Atlantic tropical cyclone name lists are compiled by the World Meteorological Organization, which also creates lists for other parts of the world affected by such storms.

This year's list for the southwest Indian Ocean, for example, begins with the names Arola, Bento and Chambo, while the western Australian list starts with Adeline, Bertie and Clare.

The rest of this year's Atlantic roster _ Stan, Tammy, Vince and Wilma _ may sound more like a bowling team than a quartet of storms. But until a few weeks ago, Katrina didn't sound very threatening either.

A name can be retired from the list "if a storm is so deadly or costly that the future use of its name on a different storm would be inappropriate for obvious reasons of sensitivity."

Among the retirees are Camille, Andrew and all four of last year's Florida storms, Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.

Will Katrina be struck from the list?

"Absolutely," Lepore says.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or