June marks the official start of the hurricane season forecasted to be below average.
At this moment, Tropical Storm Bill is approaching the Texas coast with winds at 60 mph with higher gusts, says the National Weather Service. Bill’s tempting the fates with the threat of heavy rainfall up to 8-inches and possible amounts up to 12 inches in places. Bill is purported to cause widespread flash flooding through midweek across Texas and 4 other states: Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois.
That’s what Bill is up to. I remember when storm names were once entirely female references, until civil rights activists caused a storm of their own.
One of the important tasks of the United Nations World Meteorological Organization is the naming of tropical storms. The WMO also decides on which storm names to “retire,” as was the fate of Carol and Hazel in 1954.
A cursory analysis reveals that since the WMO first began naming hurricanes some 60 years ago, more than half of the costliest and most deadly hurricane forces ever recorded occurred in the last two decades alone. Katrina is the canary in the coal mine. How does this bode for the insurance industry? Carriers and policyholders will need to prepare for the onslaught of worse-case superstorm scenarios that will inevitably hit our shores.
A Short History of Storm Names
Naming hurricanes after women began in earnest in 1953 but was popularized in 1941 with the publication of a George R. Stewart novel “Storm” that was made into a Disney movie. Before that and for hundreds of years, hurricanes were named after the saints. Bending to public pressure, the WMO stopped using female names exclusively in 1979.
Applying common and easy to pronounce and remember names to ferocious winds was done to avoid confusion and for speedier communications. It was also a way for the military and the NOAA to avoid using longitude and latitude coordinates. Using familiar names like David, Bob and Keith (all since retired) make tracking much easier when two or more hurricanes develop simultaneously.
How the Naming Convention Works
Each six-month hurricane season begins with 21 names. Every six years, the same set of names is repeated. Names are retired and replaced for reasons of public sensitivity, such as when a superstorm or hurricane causes severe destruction and high fatalities. [Graphic: 2015 list of Atlantic storm names]
For that reason, it is safe to assume that Sandy will be retired from the naming convention. Yet Sandy was not considered “major” because it fell below being a category 3 or above when it hit the east coast. A month after the event, Fox News reported 125 fatalities across four states of Sandy’s 860-mile wake that caused $62 billion in losses, the second largest damages assessment in U.S. history after Katrina ($128 billion in damages). And Sandy laid over a $300 billion toll on the Caribbean.
What Retired Storm Names Tell Us
Since 1950 when the naming convention was established, 76 storm names have been swept out of circulation. Of these named storms, more than half (55%) has been retired by the World Meteorological Organization in just the last 21 years.
NOAA reports that since 1995, more than 70% of seasons have been above normal. An early warning signs of a particularly bad hurricane season is when tropical storms develop a month before the season officially begins on June 1st, as was the case in 2012 when Sandy and Isaac rolled in. Sandy was bizarre. It struck in late October, a month before the official end of the Atlantic hurricane season.
“Several inter-related atmospheric and oceanic factors contribute to these high activity years, including warmer Atlantic Ocean temperatures, an enhanced West African monsoon, and reduced vertical wind shear,” says NOAA. Thankfully, the agency says the 2015 season is expected to be below average in terms of frequency and intensity. But it only takes one big one.
The worst year that accounted for the highest number of retired names, and by extension, casualties to property and life, was 2005, when Dennis, Rita, Stan, Wilma, and Katrina all took early leave. Of course Sandy and Isaac were scratched from the list of recycled names.