Why are hurricanes the only storms that get a name?

Posted August 22, 2016 3:51 p.m. EDT

— In the United States, tropical storms and hurricanes are the only kinds of storms that get a name: Irma, Katrina, Harvey, Sandy. Other major storms -- tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and blizzards -- aren't as special. The recent flooding in New England caused damage on the level of a hurricane, but the "bomb cyclone" had no name.

Maybe it should have: Since 2012, more than 60 weather disasters without names have each caused more than $1 billion in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Here's a look at why hurricanes get special treatment in the naming department compared to other deadly disasters -- and how that trend is slowly changing.

What's in a name?

Hurricanes haven't always received names. According to the National Hurricane Center, the latitude and longitude of a storm's position used to determine the name of a hurricane. Although the name was very accurate -- a storm found at 28°08'55.7"N 67°56'47.0"W would be called 28°08'55.7"N 67°56'47.0"W -- it was also very forgettable.

Instead, the World Meteorological Organization tried using names, in part because "naming storms made it easier for the media to report." In turn, the decision to name hurricanes has heightened interest in warnings and increased community preparation ahead of the storms, the organization said.

Under the radar

In October 2015, South Carolina endured a flood of historic proportions that pummeled some parts of the state with more than 2 feet of rain, caused an estimated $2 billion in damage in just four days and resulted in 25 deaths.

Though the flood was linked to Hurricane Joaquin, the storm responsible for the flooding remained nameless.

In August 2016, the Red Cross declared the floods that devastated Louisiana the worst natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy. (Sandy, of course, had a name because it started as a hurricane.)

About 6.9 trillion gallons of rain pummeled the state in a week, according to WeatherBELL Analytics meteorologist Ryan Maue, which is enough to fill more than 10 million Olympic-size swimming pools.

It was also enough for Gov. John Bel Edwards to call the deluge historic and unprecedented; those adjectives, of course, couldn't be attached to a name.

Storm names through history

Originally, hurricanes in the West Indies took their names from the calendar of saints. For example, there was Hurricane Santa Ana, which struck Puerto Rico on July 26, 1825, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Naming storms gained popularity when novelist and historian George R. Stewart named a storm Maria in his 1941 book "Storm."

During World War II, US Army and Navy meteorologists responsible for plotting the movement of storms across the western part of the Pacific Ocean began to use names for cyclones in their forecasts.

In 1953, meteorologists in the United States began using female names for hurricanes. A quarter-century later, meteorologists began naming storms with both male and female names, first in the eastern Pacific Ocean, followed by the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico a year later.

Today, the World Meteorological Organization is responsible for the lists of names used for hurricanes around the globe in the five oceans.

A new day for storm names

Drawing inspiration from military meteorologists, Karla Wege, a student at the Institute for Meteorology of the Free University Berlin, after World War II suggested naming all low- and high- pressure systems throughout Central Europe. This tradition started in 1954. Since 2002, anyone can name a European storm through the "Aktion Weeterpate" (Adopt-a-Vortex) program.

In 2015, the UK Met Office and Ireland's National Met Services partnered to experiment with a way to name windstorms expected to affect the United Kingdom and Ireland.

"We have seen how naming storms elsewhere in the world raises awareness of severe weather before it strikes, said Derrick Ryall, head of the Public Weather Service at the Met office partnership. "We hope that naming storms in line with the official severe weather warnings here will do the same."

Five years ago, the Weather Channel released its own naming criteria for the 2012-13 winter season. The criteria were simple: meet the National Weather Service winter-storm warning requirements and be forecast to affect at least 2 million people or more than 400,000 square kilometers, larger than the size of Texas. The weather service issues a winter storm warning when a significant combination of hazardous winter weather is occurring or imminent.

The Weather Channel named one 2013 winter storm Nemo -- no, not after the cartoon fish but rather after the Latin definition of the name, which means "no one" or "nobody."