June 1st marked the beginning of Hurricane Season—the period of time each year when these phenomena are at their peak. For her latest book, Liz Skilton, assistant professor of history and Louisiana Studies, looked at the history of how we named these storms, and how those names shaped our attitudes towards them.
The hurricane in popular imagination is as ever-changing as the winds that shape it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in how we talk about hurricanes. At different junctures in American history, we have referred to storms as:
- vengeful gods (Louis Pérez’s Winds of Change),
- forces of an all-powerful “Mother Nature” (Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature),
- uncontrollable balls of wind (Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm),
- instigators at the backdrop of larger historical events (William Shakespeare’s The Tempest),
- fiction-worthy protagonists (Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God or Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm),
- representative of larger social movements (Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Words and Women),
- hellish symbols of the (in)/effectiveness of federal disaster relief policies (Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God)
- reflections of local, regional, national, and even international problems (Stuart Schwartz’s Sea of Storms),
- and as a way of defining the changed world resulting from disaster and everything extending from it (Kevin Rozario’s The Culture of Calamity).
In short, as we wait for the next “Big One,” we revise the terms we used to about the last storm, adding to and changing our impressions of hurricanes at the same time.
Despite our familiarity with the multitude of storms in our past, there is one piece of this history that receives little attention, but still grossly influences our understanding of these great storms: our impressions of hurricanes are influenced by the very names we give them. Our system of hurricane naming, as argued by weather officials after its adoption, is an “American tradition,” one built out of our culture and sustained by our country’s global intervention in science, meteorology, and media.[i]
One reason hurricane naming has not received attention for its role in shaping impressions of hurricanes is that we are so familiar with these names—Betsy, Camille, Andrew, Katrina, Harvey. They sound more like neighbors than disasters. They become part of our lives, intrinsically linking us to the time and place in our personal history as much as our collective histories. As a result, we rarely disconnect them from the larger effects of these storms. This is not to say that we do not ask where these names come from each season when the new list of names is released June 1. In fact, articles appear worldwide on this topic.[ii]
Another reason why hurricane naming fails to receive attention in academic scholarship, or past the obligatory “why do we name hurricanes” annual article, is that its history is complex and thus incredibly hard to unravel. At different moments in time, hurricane names were used for various reasons and incredibly different ways, by a multitude of organizations and people.
As Americans used names to describe storms in each decade, they debated and adapted the practice, repeatedly altering the system’s meaning. Because of this, hurricane names became sites of cultural change, reflecting it and shaping it in the process. But in relegating the practice of hurricane naming to the backdrop of history, hurricane names were obfuscated to objects of imagination, peripheral to the details of big storms. In short, their history was lost in the details, brought up only as we prepared for the next Big One to capture our attention. However, hurricane names (and the ways we use them) continued to influence the way we prepared, reacted, and reflected each season. For that reason alone, the names deserve study.
Tempest: Hurricane Naming and American Culture is the first to take on this cloudy history. The book unpacks this “American tradition,” by examining the history of not only why we named the great storms, but how these names have influenced us, proving that hurricane naming is as important now as it was when it was first introduced 75 years ago.
If you’re interested in learning more about the culture around hurricane and natural disaster naming, check out these books:
James Rodger Fleming, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).
Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm (New York: Penguin Random House, 1999).
Matthew Mulcahy, Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624-1783 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).
Louis Pérez, Winds of Change: Hurricanes & The Transformation of Nineteenth-Century Cuba (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
Eleonora Rohland, Changes in the Air: Hurricanes in New Orleans from 1718 to the Present (New York: Berghahn Books, 2018).
Kevin Rozario, The Culture of Calamity: Disaster and the Making of Modern America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
Stuart B. Schwartz, Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).
Ted Steinberg, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
[i] “Hurricanes—No Slur On Women,” Irish Times, May 27, 1971.
[ii] “Why do we name hurricanes?” The Washington Post, as republished by AL.com, June 4, 2019, https://www.al.com/hurricane/2019/06/why-do-we-name-hurricanes.html.
Liz Skilton is assistant professor of history and the J. J. Burdin M. D. and Helen B. Burdin/BORSF Endowed Professor in Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her book, Tempest, is available now.