Hurricanes began getting names in 1950, when the U.S. Weather Bureau began using the phonetic alphabet (Able-Baker-Charlie) for tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic. In 1953, women’s names were substituted, and in 1979, the World Meteorological Organization and the U.S. National Weather Service 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 hurricane gets its name retired. Any nation impacted by a noteworthy hurricane or tropical storm can lobby the World Meteorological Organization to have the name of that storm retired. As of 2022, the retired list included 94 hurricanes and two tropical storms.

a map shows the circuitous path of Hurricane Gordon through the Caribbean and Atlantic between Nov. 8 and Nov. 21, 1994.
Figure 1. Track of Hurricane Gordon of 1994. (Image credit: Weather Underground, an IBM company)

The active name most deserving of retirement: Gordon

The name Gordon has been used five times – in 1994, 2000, 2006, 2012, and 2018 – and will be reused in 2024. However, the first incarnation of Gordon really should have resulted in its name being permanently retired. On Nov. 13, 1994, Gordon hit Jamaica and eastern Cuba as a minimal tropical storm, where its heavy rains led to flooding that killed six and did over $100 million in damage (1994 dollars). Gordon then turned west-northwest to affect Florida, where $400 million in damage and eight deaths resulted. It eventually became a Category 1 hurricane a few hundred miles east of Florida.

But the main tragedy of the storm occurred in Haiti, where the broad circulation of Gordon produced a persistent southerly flow for multiple days that resulted in torrential rains over mountainous regions. Rainfall amounts as high as 13 inches in 12 hours fell, resulting 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 1950-2016 period. Under-resourced Haiti did not submit a request to the World Meteorological Organization to have the name Gordon retired, and neither did the other nations affected by the storm.

According to the National Hurricane Center list of deadliest Atlantic tropical cyclones, there are only two other names in the current active list of storms that belonged to previous storms that killed over 100 people: Beryl and Bret. Tropical Storm Beryl of 1982 killed 115 people in the Cabo Verde Islands, and Tropical Storm Bret of 1993 killed 184 people in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Colombia. Beryl will appear again in 2024; Bret appeared this year and will return in 2029.

satellite image of Hurricane Emily
Figure 2. Hurricane Emily south of Jamaica at 11:45 a.m. EDT July 16, 2005. At the time, Emily was a top-end Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds, and it would achieve Category 5 strength that evening. Image credit: NASA.

The five Category 5 hurricanes to not get their names retired

There have been 30 Category 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic since hurricane naming began in 1950. Only five of those mighty storms did not get their names formally retired: Hurricane Carol of 1953, Hurricane Esther of 1961, Hurricane Edith of 1971, Hurricane Emily of 2005, and Hurricane Lorenzo of 2019. The names Edith and Esther were dropped from the active list of storms for reasons that were not stated, Hurricane Carol’s name was retired after the 1954 incarnation of the storm did major damage in New England, leaving Emily and Lorenzo as the only former Category 5 storms to still have their names in the active list of storms.

Lorenzo never made landfall as it traversed the eastern Atlantic, but it passed near the Azores, causing over $300 million in damage (2023 dollars); 19 people died in the storm. These impacts were not sufficient to result in a request to retire the name Lorenzo, however.

Emily achieved Category 5 status for six hours on July 17, 2005, as it passed to the southwest of Jamaica. The hurricane weakened to a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds before making landfall on the Mexican coast near Cozumel Island, bringing a storm surge of up to 15 feet. Emily went on to cross the Gulf of Mexico and slam ashore on the Mexican coast south of Brownsville, Texas, as a Category 3 hurricane. Emily’s double strike on Mexico as a major hurricane did approximately $384 million (2023 dollars) in damage. Amazingly, Mexico suffered no direct deaths from these two landfalls by a major hurricane, thanks to massive evacuations involving nearly 100,000 people, mostly tourists. (Three indirect deaths were blamed on the hurricane, including two people killed in a helicopter crash during the evacuation of offshore oil rigs.) Mexico’s preparations for Hurricane Emily of 2005 thus stand as one of the most remarkable civil defense success stories of all time. Perhaps Mexico’s pride in this brilliant accomplishment kept officials from requesting that the name Emily be retired from the list of hurricane names.

10 Atlantic storms with damages over $2 billion that did not get their names retired

There have been 10 named storms in the Atlantic that have caused at least $2 billion in inflation-adjusted damage but did not have their names retired:

A table lists hurricane names, years, landfall strength, damage, landfall location, and deaths caused. No. 1 is 2020's Sally, which caused $8.5 billion in damage and five deaths.
*The 2003 incarnation of Hurricane Juan battered Nova Scotia, Canada, killing eight and causing over $200 million in damage, leading to the retirement of the name Juan.

Considering that there have been eight storms that made landfalls only in the U.S. that did less than $4 billion in inflation-adjusted damage and got their names retired, the 10 storms in the list above were all worthy of having their names retired – particularly Hurricane Sally of 2020, which did over $8 billion in damage after making landfall in Louisiana as a Category 2 storm. The four storms from 2020 in the list above were probably not retired because they had to compete with three Category 4 hurricanes in 2020 that also made landfall – Laura (Louisiana, $27 billion in damage, 42 deaths), Iota (Nicaragua and Honduras, $1.4 billion in damage, 84 deaths), and Eta (Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, and U.S., $8.3 billion in damage, 175 deaths).

Satellite image of Tropical Storm Arlene
Figure 3. Sorry, not this time, either. In its 12th appearance in the Atlantic since 1959, Tropical Storm Arlene, located in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida on June 2, 2023, fails to impress. See you in 2029, Arlene! (Image credit: NASA WorldView)

The most chances to get retired: Arlene (12 times!)

Only four Atlantic storm names have been recycled as many as nine times. The storm with the most opportunities to get its name retired has been Arlene, whose popularity as a U.S. baby name peaked in 1934. Arlene has been used 12 times: 1959, 1963, 1967, 1971, 1981, 1987, 1993, 1999, 2005, 2011, 2017, and again this year. The other members of the nine-plus-appearances club are Cindy (10), Florence (10), and Dolly (9). Florence was finally retired after its 10th appearance, in 2018; that year’s Hurricane Florence deluged North and South Carolina with record amounts of rain as a Category 1 storm, killing 54 and causing over $24 billion in damage (2018 USD). Here are the details on the appearances of these four frequent visitors:

Arlene (12): 1959 – TS; 1963 – H2; 1967 – H1; 1971 – TS; 1981 – TS; 1987 – H1; 1993 – TS; 1999 – TS; 2005 – TS; 2011 – TS; 2017 – TS; 2023 – TS.
Cindy (10): 1959 – H1; 1963 – H1; 1981 – TS; 1987 – TS; 1993 – TS; 1999 – H4; 2005 – H1; 2011 – TS; 2017 – TS; 2023 – 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 (x); 1954 – H1; 1968 – H1; 1974 – TS; 1996 – H1; 2002 – TS; 2008 – H2; 2014 – TS; 2020 – TS.

Key to 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. Thanks to Mark Cole for providing the statistics on these four frequent visitors.

Satellite image of Hurricane Bret
Figure 4. Hurricane Bret shortly after peak intensity on Aug. 22, 1999. Image credit: NOAA.

The only major U.S. landfalling hurricanes not to get their names retired: Bret of 1999 and Zeta of 2020

Since people’s names began to be used for Atlantic hurricanes in 1953, there have been 40 major (Category 3 and stronger) hurricanes to make landfall in the United States. All but two of these have had their names retired. The most recent was Zeta of 2020, which affected parts of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, northern Georgia, and the Carolinas, killing six and doing $5.1 billion in damage. Zeta’s name was not individually retired, but the entire alternate list of Greek names was replaced in 2021 by a new alternate list that is much more contemporary.

The other storm was Hurricane Bret of 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 later that day along Texas’s Padre Island, midway between Brownsville and Corpus Christi. Due to Bret’s small size and the sparsely-populated region of the coast it hit, damage was limited to $127 million (2023 dollars), and just one life was lost.

Which letters have had the most names retired?

A perennial question that pops up in hurricane naming: Which letters are the most overrepresented when it comes to retirements? One might guess that the answer is A, but names starting with A are more likely to occur early in the season before conditions are most favorable for strengthening. As noted in a roundup by the Palm Beach Post, the actual “winner” is I, which has seen 14 retirements, including one in each of the past three years: Iota in 2020, Ida in 2021, and Ian in 2022. The runner-up is F, with 10 retirements.

The 2023 list includes four new names as a result of 2017’s four retirements:

  • Harold, replacing Harvey
  • Idalia, replacing Irma
  • Margot, replacing Maria
  • Nigel, replacing Nate

Watching Franklin and three other potential Atlantic systems

Tropical Storm Franklin was gathering strength early Thursday north of Hispaniola after dropping torrential rains and triggering floods and landslides there on Wednesday, with two people reported missing in the Dominican Republic. Franklin is predicted to become a hurricane by Friday, and it could become a major hurricane this weekend as it turns sharply toward the north-northwest, most likely passing west of Bermuda on Monday.

We’re also monitoring three other systems:

  • the remnants of Tropical Storm Emily, which may regenerate (as Emily) in the north central Atlantic before hitting colder waters
  • a disturbance in the central tropical Atlantic, designated as Invest 92L, that may gradually develop over the next few days
  • and of most immediate concern, an area of low pressure in the western Caribbean not yet assigned an invest number. Models suggest development could occur by late in the weekend or early next week as this low moves north and eventually approaches the Gulf Coast of Florida. In its 8 a.m. EDT Friday Tropical Weather Outlook, the National Hurricane Center gave 10 and a 50% odds that at least a tropical depression would develop in the two- and seven-day periods.

We’ll have a complete update on all these systems on Friday.

Bob Henson contributed to this post. Website visitors can comment on “Eye on the Storm” posts (see comments policy below). Sign up to receive notices of new postings here.

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Jeff Masters, Ph.D., worked as a hurricane scientist with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990. After a near-fatal flight into category 5 Hurricane Hugo, he left the Hurricane Hunters to pursue a...