The Greek alphabet will no longer be used to name Atlantic hurricanes, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has announced. WMO also permanently retired the names of three hurricanes from the 2020 season – Laura, Eta, and Iota – and one name from the 2019 season, Dorian.
Surprisingly, WMO opted not to retire the names of five storms that caused more than $2 billion in damage each – Zeta, Delta, Sally, and Isaias from 2020, and Imelda from 2019. Sally, which caused $7.3 billion in damage to the southeastern U.S., is now the most expensive hurricane name to not be retired.
The WMO decision to stop using Greek names is much-needed. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) had recommended this step back in 2005, after that year’s record-breaking hurricane season became the first to delve into the Greek alphabet having exhausted the 21 names from the regular season list.
“The annual name list has been exhausted on two occasions during the past 15 years,” WMO said in its March 17 announcement, “and it is likely that this will occur again in the future.” It pointed to a number of shortcomings with the use of the Greek alphabet:
- Confusion with some Greek alphabet names arose with translation into other languages.
- Pronunciations of several of the Greek letters (Zeta, Eta, Theta) are similar and occur in succession. In 2020, storms with very similar sounding names occurred simultaneously, leading to messaging challenges rather than streamlined and clear communication.
- Impacts from Eta and Iota were severe enough that those names have been formally retired by the Hurricane Committee. There was no formal plan for retiring Greek names, and their future use of these names would be inappropriate.
When a season exhausts names, a supplemental list of Atlantic tropical cyclone names from now on will be used instead of the Greek alphabet. Names on the supplemental list will be retired and replaced when required.
Dorian (2019) and Laura, Eta, and Iota (2020) get their names retired
WMO retired three 2020 hurricane names: Laura, Eta, and Iota, along with Dorian from 2019, for which the announcement was not made last year because of the pandemic. The most names retired in one season previously came in 2005, when five hurricanes names were retired.
Hurricane Eta became the deadliest Atlantic storm of 2020 after making landfall in northern Nicaragua on November 3 as a category 4 storm with 140 mph winds. Moving very slowly at landfall, Eta lingered for three days over Central America and adjacent waters, dropping catastrophic amounts of rainfall in excess of 20 inches in some regions. Eta killed at least 309 people, primarily in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Panama, according to insurance broker Aon. Honduras suffered $6 billion in damage (24% of its $25 billion GDP), tying Eta with Hurricane Mitch of 1998 as the nation’s most expensive disaster on record. Eta went on to make landfalls in Cuba and Florida, and caused $1.5 billion in damage in the U.S.
Hurricane Iota, the only category 5 hurricane of 2020, made landfall two weeks after Eta as a category 4 storm with 155 mph winds in Nicaragua, just 15 miles from where Eta had hit. There is no precedent in the Atlantic for two such powerful hurricanes to make landfall so close together in space and time. Iota was blamed for 102 deaths and $1.3 billion in damage.
Hurricane Laura was the most damaging hurricane of 2020, hitting southwestern Louisiana as a category 4 storm with 150 mph winds on August 27, causing $19 billion in damage and 42 deaths. Laura was tied as the fifth-strongest hurricane on record to make a continental U.S. landfall, and it tied the Last Island Hurricane of 1856 as the strongest landfalling hurricane in Louisiana history. Incredibly, on October 9, Hurricane Delta made landfall as a category 2 hurricane with 100 mph winds just 12 miles to the east of where Laura had hit. NOAA estimated that Delta caused an additional $2.9 billion in damage.
Hurricane Dorian rapidly intensified into a category 5 mega-hurricane, powering ashore on Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas on September 1, 2019, with sustained winds of 185 mph. Dorian tied with the 1935 Florida Keys Labor Day Hurricane as the most powerful landfalling Atlantic hurricane (by wind speed) on record. Dorian was also the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, outside of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. The only stronger Atlantic hurricane on record was Allen in 1980, with 190 mph winds in the Western Caribbean. Dorian killed 73 and left more than 200 people missing in the Bahamas, causing $8 billion in damage. Dorian made additional landfalls, first in North Carolina as a category 1 hurricane, causing $1.4 billion in damage, and then as a category 2-equivalent extratropical cyclone in Nova Scotia, Canada, causing $200 million in damage.
Surprising omissions from the list of retired hurricane names
WMO did not retire the names of four 2020 storms that caused over $2 billion in damage each to the U.S. – Zeta, Delta, Sally, and Isaias, plus Imelda from 2019. Some past storms that have caused this level of damage have had their names retired, so the omission of these names – particularly those of Sally, Imelda, and Isaias, which each caused at least $4.8 billion in damage to the U.S. – is notable.
Storms from 2019 and 2020 (Figure 2) now dominate the list of most expensive storms not to have their names retired, an action inconsistent with steps taken in the past. One could argue that with the 2020 storms hitting during a pandemic, making their impacts more significant, those names were even more deserving of retirement than usual.
According to NOAA, six hurricanes affecting the U.S. between 1985-2002 and causing less than $4 billion in damages have had their names retired:
Marilyn, 1985 (Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands): $3.6 billion;
Elena, 1985 (southeastern U.S.): $3.2 billion;
Bob, 1991 (northeastern U.S.): $2.9 billion;
Gloria, 1985 (northeastern U.S.): $2.1 billion;
Isidore, 2002 (southern U.S., Mexico, and Cuba): $1.7 billion; and
Lili, 2002 (southern U.S. and Caribbean): $1.6 billion.
Hurricane naming and retirement
Hurricanes have been getting names since 1950, when the U.S. Weather Bureau began using the phonetic alphabet (Able-Baker-Charlie). In 1953, women’s names were substituted, and since then, WMO has taken responsibility for tropical cyclone names worldwide.
In 1979, WMO switched to a series of six lists of names that also included men’s names. Each of those lists is recycled every six years, unless a storm name is retired. Any nation impacted by a severe hurricane or tropical storm can lobby WMO to have that storm name retired. The retired list for the Atlantic includes two tropical storms – Allison in 2001, which killed 43 people and caused $12.7 billion (2020 dollars) in flood damage to Texas; and Tropical Storm Erika of 2015, which killed 30 people and did $560 million in damage to Dominica in the Lesser Antilles Islands.
Gordon: The still active name most deserving of retirement
The name Gordon, used five times, in 1994, 2000, 2006, 2012, and 2018, is to be reused in 2024. However, the first incarnation of Gordon, in November 1994, really should have resulted in the retirement of the name Gordon.
On November 13, 1994, Gordon hit Jamaica and Eastern Cuba as a minimal tropical storm, with its heavy rains leading to flooding that killed six and did over $100 million in damage. Gordon then turned west-northwest to affect Florida, there inflicting $400 million in damage and causing eight deaths. It eventually became a category 1 hurricane a few hundred miles east of Florida.
The main tragedy from Gordon occurred in Haiti, where the storm’s broad circulation produced a persistent southerly flow that resulted in torrential rains over mountainous regions. Its rainfall amounts as high as 13 inches in 12 hours resulted in devastating flooding and mudslides that officially killed 1,122 Haitians. The total death toll in all nations affected by Gordon was 1,145, making it the seventh deadliest Atlantic hurricane in the 1950 – 2020 period. Haiti apparently did not send a representative to the WMO meeting to request that the name Gordon be retired, and none of the other nations affected by the storm made the request.
According to the National Hurricane Center list of deadliest Atlantic tropical cyclones, only two other names of previous storms that killed more than 100 people, Beryl and Bret, are scheduled to be reused. Tropical Storm Beryl in 1982 killed 115 people in the Cabo Verde Islands, and Tropical Storm Bret in 1993 killed 184 people in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Colombia. Bret is to be used again in 2023, and Beryl again in 2024.
The most failed chances to get its name retired: Arlene (11)
Only five Atlantic storm names have been recycled as many as eight times (though Claudette is scheduled to join that club in 2021). The storm name with the most opportunities to have its name retired is Arlene, which has been used 11 times: in 1959, 1963, 1967, 1971, 1981, 1987, 1993, 1999, 2005, 2011, and 2017. Arlene is to be used again in 2023.
Other names in the eight-plus appearances club are Florence (10), Cindy (9), Dolly (9), and Frances (8). The name Florence was officially retired in 2018 after its ninth appearance, when it inundated the Carolinas with all-time record rains, killing 24 and causing over $24 billion in damage. The name Frances finally was retired in 2004 after its eighth appearance, when it ravaged central Florida as a category 2 storm. Thanks go to Mark Cole for providing the statistics on these five frequent visitors:
Arlene (11): 1959 – TS; 1963 – H2; 1967 – H1; 1971 – TS; 1981 – TS; 1987 – H1; 1993 – TS; 1999 – TS; 2005 – TS; 2011 – TS; 2017 – TS.
Florence (10): 1953 – H3; 1954 – TS; 1960 – TS; 1964 – TS; 1988 – H1; 1994 – H2; 2000 – H1; 2006 – H1; 2012 – TS; 2018 – H4 (RETIRED).
Dolly (9): 1953 – H1; 1954 – H1; 1968 – H1; 1974 – TS; 1996 – H1; 2002 – TS; 2008 – H2; 2014 – TS; 2020 – TS.
Cindy (9): 1959 – H1; 1963 – H1; 1981 – TS; 1987 – TS; 1993 – TS; 1999 – H4; 2005 – H1; 2011 – TS; 2017 – TS.
Frances (8): 1961 – H3; 1968 – TS; 1976 – H3; 1980 – H3; 1986 – H1; 1992 – H1; 1998 – TS; 2004 – H4 (RETIRED).
Key to these abbreviations: TS – Tropical Storm; H1 – Hurricane, Cat 1; H2 – Hurricane, Cat 2; H3 – Major Hurricane, Cat 3; H4 – Major Hurricane, Cat 4; H5 – Major Hurricane, Cat 5.
Bret in 1999, the only major U.S. landfalling hurricane name not retired
Since people’s names began being used for Atlantic hurricanes in 1953, there have been 33 major (category 3 and stronger) Atlantic hurricanes to make landfall in the continental United States. All but one of these has had its name retired. The exception? Hurricane Bret in 1999, which rapidly intensified to category 4 strength with 145 mph winds in the Gulf of Mexico on August 22, 1999. Bret weakened to a category 3 storm with 115 mph winds before making landfall that day along Texas’s Padre Island, midway between Brownsville and Corpus Christi. Given Bret’s small size and the sparsely-populated region of the coast it hit, damage was limited to $60 million (1999 USD), and one life lost.