After the devastation visited on Louisiana in 2005, anyone named Katrina bore a special burden, inevitably associated with a storm that strained the levees of New Orleans and prompted a historic disaster.
Now, as Louisiana navigates another hurricane season, does anyone else really want to be a named after another potentially colossal tragedy?
The possibility of that problem wasn’t lost on those who first popularized the tradition of naming big storms – a dilemma limited to women when such weather systems had only female names. Or so Liz Skilton, who teaches history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, reminds readers in her new book, “Tempest: Hurricane Naming and Popular Culture.”
Skilton considers the interplay of gender and hurricane naming in “Tempest,” along the way giving readers a lively history of how we came to personify storms with names in the first place.
Here we learn of Clement Lindley Wragge, chief meteorologist for Australia’s Queensland Weather Bureau at the turn of the 20th century. Wragge had named tropical cyclones after Hebrew letters and Greek gods, but in 1896 decided to start using female names for storms.
An editorial writer at the time expressed enthusiasm about the new naming scheme before adding a reservation. “It is hoped that Flora and Irene are only the beginning of a series of feminine names which will help to give a personal interest to the disturbances,” the commentator noted.
But as Skilton points out, the journalist identified a challenge. The newspaper writer cautioned “that the naming system could cause offense, though, suggesting that, before Wragge chose a name, he first contact women by that name for permission.”
Wragge waved off that recommendation, and by 1902, he was bored with his naming system, anyway. In a display of irreverence perhaps typical of Australians, “Wragge chose to name storms after well-known Australian politicians, particularly those who recently implemented cuts to the Weather Bureau budget.”
Elected officials were not entirely amused, and Wragge eventually lost his job, but not before gigging his chief critic, Representative Alfred B. Conroy, by naming a 1902 storm Cyclone Conroy.
In our own day here in the States, despite the pervasiveness of politics in almost every aspect of our culture, the naming of hurricanes seems to be a fairly nonpartisan affair, and we hope it stays that way.
The prospect of partisans dubbing the next storm Hurricane Trump or Hurricane Pelosi might, even in our overheated times, be taking politics too far.