Why Hurricane Names Exist (and Who Names Storms)

By: John Donovan  | 
hurricane sally
A driver navigates along a flooded road as the outer bands of Hurricane Sally comes ashore on Sept. 15, 2020, in Bayou La Batre, Alabama. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Hurricanes seem to be coming at us in bunches now, either a product of climate change, the time of year or just bad luck. Maybe all three. They're absolutely unrelenting and unstoppable.

At least now, though, we have hurricane names and know what to call these major storms.


How Storm Naming Used to Work

We used to differentiate hurricanes (or typhoons, depending on where they are) by just a bunch of numbers, latitude and longitude. Sometimes just an arbitrary number.

Some of the Atlantic storm names came from where they made landfall (the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900) or for saints (the San Felipe hurricane of 1876). Antje's hurricane of 1842 received that name because of the ship it demasted. Nowadays, storms have dedicated names even before a tropical storm develops.


Shifting to Hurricane Names

There's a reason hurricanes and tropical storms aren't named willy-nilly any longer. Or Willy Nilly, for that matter.

"[N]ames are presumed to be far easier to remember than numbers and technical terms," the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) website says. "Many agree that appending names to storms makes it easier for the media to report on tropical cyclones, heightens interest in warnings and increases community preparedness." Basically, people in the path of the storms will remember and pay attention to media reports about Hurricane Bertha than they would Hurricane Two.


And so the names come, in alphabetical order, off a set of six lists that the WMO maintains. The six lists rotate. So the names used in 2020 — Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal, etc., for example — will come around again in 2026. (This is true for hurricanes in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic. The lists differ in other parts of the world.)

For the record, only 21 names are on each list in the Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean region. Don't look for names beginning with Q, U, X, Y or Z (sorry, Zelda). And if the storms start really piling on during the Atlantic hurricane season and forecasters need more than the 21 names in the same season, they turn to the Greek alphabet (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and hello Zeta).

Before 1979, the storms were only named after women, but men names came into the mix in the 1970s. In 1978, men's names came to use for Northern Pacific storms. By 1979, they were also adopted for the Atlantic basin. Since then, the list has alternated between male and female names.


Who Chooses Hurricane and Tropical Storm Names?

It's not the National Weather Service, but the World Meteorological Organization that gives hurricanes and tropical storms short, simple names. Since the early 1950s, the WMO has coordinated with the National Hurricane Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to put a proper name to every tropical cyclone. (Both hurricanes and typhoons are tropical cyclones.)

As the NOAA explains, "[The] National Hurricane Center does not control the naming of tropical storms. Instead, there is a strict procedure established by the World Meteorological Organization."


Retiring Hurricane Names

The six lists stay the same unless a particular storm is incredibly devastating, deadly or damaging. Then those hurricane names are retired, as with Category 5 hurricanes Andrew, Hugo and Katrina. Nobody wants to see a warning for Hurricane Katrina pop up again. (WMO replaced the name with Katia).

Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael also were retired at the end of the 2018 season after they walloped North Carolina and Puerto Rico, respectively. As of March 2023, the WMO has retired the names of 96 Atlantic tropical storms or major hurricanes.