Hurricanes In North American History

The word hurricane derives from the Spanish huracán, itself derived from the dialects of indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and Latin America (Dunn and Miller, 1964). 'Hunraken' was the name of the Mayan storm god, and 'Huraken' was the god of thunder and lightning for the Quiche of southern Guatemala (Henry et al., 1994). The Tainos and Caribe tribes of the Caribbean called their God of Evil by the name Huracan. Other indigenous dialects included words such as aracan, urican, and hurivanvucan to refer to "Big Wind." The deification of the hurricane and the connection of indigenous referents with evil and violence is an indication that hurricanes had a significant impact on the lives of many peoples of the Caribbean and Latin America.

The historical record of documented hurricane events begins with the European conquest of North America. Columbus, in his four voyages to North America, experienced direct contact with an Atlantic hurricane only in his fourth voyage. Meteorological historian David Ludlam notes that Columbus' good fortune in his first voyage leads one to wonder "what the course of history in the West Indies might have been if, in the autumn of 1492, a full-blown tropical storm had dashed the frail craft of the Admiral's fleet to the bottom of the sea or flung them shipwreck on some tiny cay" (Ludlam, 1963, p. 1). Others did not experience such good fortune. Shakespeare's play, The Tempest, was loosely based on reports of a 1609 hurricane near Bermuda that sunk the vessel Sea Venture and stranded the passengers, including John Rolf, future husband of Pocahontas, on the island for 10 months. This storm's movement was among the first successfully anticipated by the colonists. During the course of the storm's trek through the Caribbean, a skipper in the Royal Navy cautioned the British fleet to move out of the storm's path, based on his experience with the movement of past hurricanes. During the 1700s and 1800s numerous coastal locations were struck by severe hurricanes. Charleston (South Carolina), New Orleans (Louisiana), and Boston (Massachusetts) were particularly hard hit a number of times. In 1772 in the West Indies, teenaged Alexander Hamilton wrote about a hurricane's impact for a local newspaper. His writing caught the attention of the local gentry who then raised money to send him to the mainland colonies to further his education, thus setting the stage for his political career.

Tropical storms were once named after the particular "saint's day" that fell nearest the hurricane event (Tannehill, 1952). For instance, "Hurricane Santa Ana" hit Puerto Rico on 26 July 1825 (see Rodriguez, 1997). Today, tropical cyclones are "named" when they reach tropical storm strength. According to one explanation, this practice dates to the 1950s, following the publication of George R. Stewart's Storm, a book that featured a forecaster who named storms (Williams, 1992). Another explanation has the origin of the hurricane naming convention beginning with a military radio operator who, during World War II, ended each hurricane warning singing "Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise," prompting the naming of a particular hurricane Louise (Henry et al., 1994). Whatever the origin, the practice caught on because it proved useful in identifying different storms that existed simultaneously. The personification of the extreme event was also found to be a valuable practice by the various user communities. Until 1979, tropical storms were given only women's names in English. In 1979 forecasters began to use men's, French, and Spanish names as well. The repeating, 6-year list of names assigned to tropical cyclones in the Atlantic was put together by the World Meteorological Organization. It can be found at the National Hurricane Center's website at http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/names.html. Hurricanes that cause significant damage or are particularly memorable, such as Andrew (1992), Camille (1969), or Gilbert (1988), are retired and those names are not used again. Table 1 lists retired hurricanes through 1995 and notes death and damages associated with each.

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