Riders on the Storm

4 Sep

I just got off the phone with a friend in Martha’s Vineyard. Yesterday, they had hunkered down in preparation for the bad weather, but Earl was eventually downgraded to a minor hurricane. This is good news for everyone but reporters, as I know there is nothing they enjoy more than doing those dramatic, “at the scene” updates.

You may remember not long ago a tropical storm named Agatha which wreaked havoc in Central America. At the time I was deluged with emails from fans, asking if the storm had been named after me. I do not believe this to be so.  Wikipedia described Agatha as “weak and catastrophic” whereas I—as you know by now yourselves, dear readers—am a violent and terrifying force for good.

Because we humans take issue with things we can’t control, it scares the living bejesus out of us when we think about the potential destruction natural events can cause and the very little we can do to stop them. Therefore, we devised a policy of giving these events people’s names: by portraying them as just “one of us,” it’s easier to convince ourselves they’re not so powerful.

This is why originally bad weather was only given women’s names. After all, no decent, hard-working Joe in the 1950s could be afraid of little ol’ Tropical Storm Cindy-Lou, now could he?  Of course, the bra burners eventually put a stop to this, and ever since 1978, names from both genders have been used.

How exactly the names are chosen is a closely guarded secret, known only to the staff of the World Meteorological Organization and to myself, owing to the fact that a few years back I met a member of the WMO who felt that revealing this secret to me outside of his hotel would convince me to join him upstairs in his room (it did not, once in the cab was surely enough). Given that this man has recently passed away (well, he’s brain dead so he’s as good as), I feel I can now reveal some of the mysteries associated with these names.

Hurricane Audrey 1957

This hurricane was inspired by Audrey Hepburn, who lost out on the starring role in Gigi, which went into production that year and won the Best Picture Oscar in 1958. The man who named it this thought he might be in with a chance with the beautiful actress by honoring her in this way; however, one of her biographers revealed that she had been appalled when she learned of it and had had ordered the man killed. He was subsequently found shot, execution-style, in the rear parking lot of the Brown Derby. Rumours persist to this day that Desi Arnez was the trigger man.

Hurricane Agnes 1972

When most of Americans think of the most important event of 1972, they don’t think of the Olympics or the Chicago commuter rail crash or the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment or anything related to the Vietnam War. For them, 1972 was all about the end of the television show Bewitched and therefore that year’s most devastating hurricane was given the name Agnes as a tribute to the wonderful and tastefully costumed actress, Agnes Moorehead.

Hurricane Hugo 1989

There’s a heartwarming story behind the naming of this storm. One of the head meteorologists had just celebrated his fiftieth birthday and to mark this milestone in his life, he decided to finally embrace the homosexual tendencies which he had spent most of his life (except for a few weeks at summer camp) denying. He gave this year’s hurricane the name Hugo, as he claimed it was Warhol’s Polaroid of Victor Hugo which had sent him over the edge. Bless.

Hurricane Dennis 1995

Due to the fact that families were finally realising that Dennis is perhaps the most feeble name on the planet, one unfortunately named fellow at the WMO hoped that giving this hurricane his own ridiculous moniker would lead to more babies being called Dennis. Thankfully, his plan backfired and the name finally died out permanently when this man took his own life in 1997.

Hurricane Floyd 1999


Hurricane Wilma 2005

Hurricane Katrina 2005

Because they knew this one was going to be a doozy, the WMO decided that by associating the storm with one of the world’s most cheerful songs (“Walking on Sunshine”) by Katrina and the Waves (get it?), those who had to deal with the devastation might cheer up a bit. This did not work out as planned.

Hurricane Ike 2008

I’m afraid I do not know the story behind this year’s Earl. I’m sure it’s meaningful to some weather freak somewhere.

Whatever one calls it, a hurricane is nothing to sneeze at. I myself have first hand experience of such a storm. In August of 1995, I was on the coast of North Carolina, vacationing with a dear friend. News came that we were to evacuate the island immediately, due to Hurricane Felix. My companion and I spent a terrified few hours trapped in the back of a car, stuck in the traffic jam on the bridge that led to the mainland. I was desperately trying to update my last will and testament while my friend was weeping over whether or not he would ever see his wife and children again. Luckily, of course, we survived as the storm remained offshore in North America, though I do believe the event was the cause of the rather abrupt end of our friendship. How can damage like that be measured in dollars, I ask?

Of course, that sad truth is that whether a storm is named after a beautiful woman or a respectable man, the effect it has is out of the hands of mere humans. All we can do is board up our windows and hope that we won’t need to rely on governmental bodies to help us clean up the mess. This is an important lesson to keep in mind and, indeed, perhaps a most fitting metaphor for our most intimate relationships.

I’m glad my friend and his property are safe for the moment. Behind Earl is Tropical Storm Fiona, who may not even make it to hurricane status. Let us pray that the season ends soon; if it doesn’t, the storms will be called Gaston, Hermine and Igor, and, without meaning to cause offense, those are bloody stupid names.

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