When a hurricane strikes, and is destructive or deadly enough, its name will be retired. For this to happen, the storm will have had to inflict so much damage that to reuse its name would be, according to the National Hurricane Center, a serious faux pas for “obvious reasons of sensitivity” (in other words, duh). At that point the applicable committee of the World Meteorological Organization will tactfully withdraw the storm’s sobriquet from the master list of names, which revolve every six years. Its former place at the top of the list will be occupied by a new possibility.
This particular brand of social tact is similar to the retirement of the number of a sports team’s all-time great, whose accomplishments are so memorable that they become wedded in the public’s imagination to the number on his jersey. Beyond reasons of compassion, another Hurricane Katrina or Andrew would cause confusion, especially if the new storm eventually became notorious in its own right—natural disasters, even though they occur and recur in predictable cycles, still need to be anchored in linear history, not least so that we can remember the damage they wreak on real communities. If, say, the San Francisco 49ers did not retire the number 16 jersey of arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, Joe Montana, it would unleash comparable bewilderment: 49ers faithful might cry “blasphemy!” at the sight of another number 16 scrambling around in their beloved red and gold.
Coincidentally, the U.S. hurricane season—May 15-Nov. 30—overlaps entirely with parts of the professional baseball, basketball, and football seasons. Sports are a ratings bonanza, but so is hurricane coverage, and stations capitalize on both, offering an ample supply of tension-filled newscasts for a nation addled by heat. As of this writing we are closing in on the September 10 “climatological peak” of the hurricane season—only two days removed from the September 8 start of the 2016-2017 NFL season.
In the archive of retired hurricanes, between familiar names like Katrina and Andrew, you’ll find typhoons you’ve most likely never heard of such as David and Audrey, whose renown have faded. Hurricane Andrew has a legacy of particularly plague-like proportions, though some of the blame might be misplaced. Supposedly damaging a reptile-breeding facility on his way through, Andrew is held responsible by locals for the more than one hundred thousand pythons that haunt Florida’s Everglades, decimating the mammal population. (Python hunts have been organized by government officials in Florida, drawing in volunteers from across the United States, though the hunts—largely a public relations maneuver—haven’t made so much as a dent in the python population.)
Meanwhile the feral chickens that overrun the Hawaiian island of Kauai, some with bright and fantastic plumage that hints at their jungle fowl ancestry, are said to be the legacy of hurricanes Iwa and Iniki. The chickens, brought over by Hawaii’s earliest inhabitants, are rumored to have escaped and bred rapidly when 1982’s hurricane Iwa and ten years later, Iniki (the deadliest hurricane to ever strike Hawaii), blew their coops open. They have become quite the tourist attraction.
County of Kauai Public Information Officer Mary Daubert cautioned me that she doesn’t know “if any source could tell you definitively” whether or not the hurricanes are responsible for the proliferation of Kauai’s feral fowl. And some dismiss charging Andrew for the snakes hissing through Florida, maintaining that they would be there anyway due to irresponsible pet owners releasing their pythons into the wetlands. Yet the links between hurricanes and pythons or chickens, whether rooted in reality or local gossip, have persisted without proof, just like the superstitious narrative of the curse of the Bambino. The Red Sox’s 1919 decision to sell Babe Ruth to the Yankees was supposedly such a bad one that the Red Sox were subjected to a hex only broken by the team’s 2004 World Series triumph. And while we can say, with hindsight, that it was probably a bad move to sell Ruth’s contract, and that it likely affected the Red Sox in the short term due to Ruth’s high production with them, how much could it possibly have bruised the team in the long term? The damage nevertheless added to Ruth’s mystique.
In writing this piece, I couldn’t help but wonder if the impulse to respectfully retire jersey numbers and hurricane names is becoming a problem. In sports, the things that make the crowds go “ooh” and “ahh,” namely touchdowns, homeruns and three-point shots, are on the rise—all the better to capture the increasingly limited attention spans of fans who crave action—and could well hasten the pace at which jersey numbers are retired. At the Yankees’ spring training, the team had to square with a lack of available jersey numbers, having retired so many to the hall of fame. The Yankees are forecasted to run out of numbers altogether in 2442, with the Boston Celtics scheduled to dry up by 2278. As the obsession with honoring individual athletes threatens to water down the rules and traditions of the games they play, sports prognosticators debate the merits of un-retiring certain jersey numbers.
Meanwhile, global warming may be spurring an increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes, leading to an uptick in the frequency of retired hurricane names. In 2005 there were so many named storms in the Atlantic hurricane season that, after the twenty-one names on the list were used up, the final storms were given Greek letters. Hurricane researcher and Associate Professor of Geosciences at the University of South Florida Jennifer Collins explained in an an email that, “There are clear cycles of activity and inactivity in recorded history. Globally some other studies have shown no increase in frequency, while in certain regions there [have] been more recent increases (e.g. the Atlantic) [and] decreases in other areas. It is thought there is an approximately 25-to-30-year cycle in the North Atlantic between activity and inactivity. Some think that we have come to the end of the active cycle. Regarding intensity, there is more evidence that storms may be getting stronger.”
James Franklin, Branch Chief of the Hurricane Specialist Unit at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center, told me that while we might be coming to the end of a period of increased hurricane activity, it is difficult to compare current and historical trends because we have not always had satellites with which to accurately monitor hurricanes.
So though we can’t be sure whether the amount and intensity of hurricanes will increase as the Earth heats up, what seems certain is that, unless we do something about the climate, society will cook itself before the Yankees or the Celtics run out of jersey numbers.