Got an ex-wife who's a real shrew? Don't bother with messy settlements, custody battles, stalking. Try something bigger, showier. Something that will alert the world to the dark truth you already know about her. Think death, destruction, mayhem, on a mass scale. Think Andrew, 1992.
"Dear Mr. Mayfield," Khalil ElSolh begins his letter to the director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Max Mayfield. "I would like you to kindly contact the WMO (World Meteorological Organization) and persuade the concerned person(s) to replace the name 'Rene' (already chosen for the year 2002) with the female name: 'RANIA' hoping it will be given to the most powerful and harmful hurricane hitting Central Florida.
"...I shall find great personal relief," continues ElSolh (whose 2000 letter showed up in a pile of documents from the National Hurricane Center requested by researcher Michael Ravnitzky) "when Florida residents ... unhappily remember hurricane 'Rania."'
More than a century ago, hurricanes were simply numbered, 1, 2, 3, etc. But forecasters and ship captains confused information about different storms, particularly if they were building simultaneously. The biggest ones could be named for years, such as the "Hurricane of '38" that ravaged New England. In 1950, forecasters tried a phonetic alphabet, "Able," "Baker," "Charlie," "Dog." But that system, too, failed to capture the imagination.
So in 1953 they replaced it with a system used informally during World War II. Sailors then named storms after their girlfriends, wives, mothers-in-law. This system stuck. Forecasters found that when storms were personified, they had an easier time telling them apart.
This held until 1979 when Florida feminist Roxcy Bolton badgered the Hurricane Center until officials agreed to stop naming hurricanes exclusively after women.
Now there are six lists with 21 names each, alternating male and female; none begin with the letters Q, U, X, Y or Z. They are rotated every six years, so this year's list will be used again in 2010. Names on a list are retired only if a hurricane's damage is so deadly or costly that using the name again would be inappropriate, the Hurricane Center's Web site explains. Mitch was retired. So was Andrew, replaced by this year's Alex.
New names are picked by the member countries at the annual meeting of the WMO. The United States is in the Atlantic region, grouped together with 24 other nations. Among them are France and several Latin American countries, and so the list also includes Spanish and French names.
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