How Are Hurricanes Named?

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Hurricane Earl in the Atlantic Ocean, Aug. 30, 2010

Jeanne Van Wyck says she couldn't even harm a fly. But in 2004 the churchgoing grandmother saw her name splashed across every news channel as Hurricane Jeanne hit Florida and the Caribbean, heralding devastation in its wake and killing more than 3,000 in Haiti alone. Back then, she told TIME, "I didn't think it would cause so much damage."

Van Wyck's first name was added to the list of hurricanes by a friend who was in charge of naming these storms for more than 20 years at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Currently, it is the responsibility of the Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization to assemble lists of names to be used for the coming hurricane season. Hurricanes and other threatening tropical storms were first given names in 1950 to make it easy for the public to know which particular storm warnings or news reports to follow, says Tim Schott, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It's especially important in busy hurricane seasons that see multiple storms at the same time, like this week with both Hurricane Earl and Hurricane Danielle swirling in the Atlantic. This year, parts of Central America, the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. East Coast have already witnessed Alex, Bonnie and Colin; the next up are Fiona, Gaston, Hermine and Igor.

For the Atlantic season, which runs from June to November every year, there are six lists with 21 names each. After each list has been used, they repeat, meaning each list is used every seventh year. Often, assigned names are representative of the various ethnicities and communities the storm may impact. While Katrina, Rita, Mitch, Andrew and Camille haunted American coasts, the meteorological centers of other nations designate more familiar names to the storms in their regions — a fierce 2009 typhoon in the Pacific was known regionally as Ketsana, a Japanese name, and as Ondoy in the Philippines, where it did the most damage.

In 1955, Norman Hagen, an official with the U.S. Weather Bureau (the organization that was then tasked with creating the names), told TIME his job was not easy. For starters, he could only use girls' names (male names weren't introduced into the rotation until 1979). And many names were off-limits. No state names, cities, months, types of weather or times of day were allowed, which meant he couldn't consider many otherwise pleasant female monikers such as Georgia, Charlotte, June, Gail or Dawn. In the end, he used traditional handbooks like What Shall We Name the Baby? to come up with the lists, which included names such as Edith, Flora, Hilda, Queena, Trudy, Xenia and Zelda.

While some of Hagen's names may still be in use today, many have been replaced or retired. A few have been taken out for political considerations, such as Adolph in 2001. The majority get retired after a storm with that particular name causes severe damage, death or injuries. The 2005 season — the most active in Atlantic history — saw the most hurricane names retired since naming began. When the list comes back around in 2011, Katia will be used instead of Katrina, Rina instead of Rita, Don instead of Dennis, Sean instead of Stan and Whitney instead of Wilma. For Van Wyck, it was a welcome relief to have her name retired in 2004 after Hurricane Jeanne went down in history as the deadliest storm that year. "The folks at church are getting sick of hearing my name," she said.