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What Do You Expect From a Hurricane With a Name Like Sandy?

By Alan Brew

Sandy is such a friendly name. Anyone called Sandy has to be bright and cheerful and so down-to-earth. It’s such an unlikely name for a killer.

Tropical Storm Sandy became Hurricane Sandy this past weekend. Then, Superstorm Sandy blew through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina and West Virginia leaving more than 40 people dead and millions without power.

Why do we give such agents of devastation cute names like Sandy? Why do we give them names at all? 

In the early days of meteorology in the United States, storms were named with a latitude/longitude designation representing the location where the storm originated. These references were difficult to remember, hard to communicate and subject to errors.

During the Second World War, military meteorologists working in the Pacific began to use the names of wives and girlfriends for storms to make communication easier. It caught on and in 1953 the method was adopted by the National Hurricane Center for use on storms originating in the Atlantic Ocean.

As they say about so many things — if you want to own an issue, give it a name. Hurricane names quickly became part of our language and public awareness and interest in hurricanes increased dramatically. Hurricanes are not named, per se. They begin as tropical storms, like Tropical Storm Sandy. If the storm reaches a sustained wind speed of 74 miles per hour, it officially becomes a hurricane with the same name.

In 1978, meteorologists began using men’s names for Atlantic tropical storms. For each year, a list of 21 names, each starting with a different letter of the alphabet, is developed and arranged in alphabetical order (names beginning with the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z are not used). During even-numbered years, like 2012, men’s names are given to the odd-numbered storms and during odd-numbered years, women’s names were given to odd-numbered storms. The next one up after Sandy is Tony.

The only change that is made to the list is the occasional retirement of a name. This is done when a hurricane causes so much death and destruction that reuse of the name would be deemed insensitive to the people who suffered losses. The first three male names used — Bob, David and Frederick — have all been retired because of the damage they caused. Bob was withdrawn from duty after Hurricane Bob hit New England in 1991. The notorious Katrina will not be used again — she joined Allison and Betsy after her rampage in 2005. Sandy will surely be next on the retired list.

Learn more about the naming of storms.