A Storm Named Earl


As soon as a hurricane watch had been issued for coastal Delaware, I began clearing the decks at work. Meetings were postponed. Deadlines changed. Even Ted Turner’s people were gonna have to wait to discuss a charitable contribution. Earl was coming and I needed to be in Rehoboth.

Hurricanes, for those of you who don’t know, are in my blood. Most families bond around holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. For me and mine, its hurricanes. September and October is our holiday season and my ninety-four year old grandmother is the high holy empress, watching over the tropics, calling with warnings, and spinning tales of hurricanes past. A native Floridian, she has experienced many a hurricane and is mighty proud of the fact that she’s only ever evacuated once. Against her will, of course.

I arrived in town on the Thursday night before Earl was due and found the Blue Moon hopping. It wasn’t a hurricane party per se; most people were there for karaoke. But at least the TVs were tuned to the Weather Channel. There was a hint of excitement in the air and much amusement about this storm named Earl.

For me, the name Earl conjures up an image of a big ol’ bubba who enjoys Garth Brooks music, Bojangles Fried Chicken, and pontoon boats. He owns a countrified yellow dog, the kind you see riding in the back of pickup trucks and on tractors.

A few of the fellas I spoke with in the Moon, however, had other ideas. They thought that Earl could be kind of hot. A former high school jock with big biceps, a big belt buckle, and the beginning of a beer belly. A good-looking, goateed-guy in an Auburn ball cap who likes nothing better than to kick back with a Budweiser and let someone else do all the work.

It was the liquor drawing forth these fantasies. But in any case, there was unanimous agreement that Earl was a name better suited for a Gulf coast hurricane rather than one threatening the Mid-Atlantic, Long Island, and Nantucket. This led naturally into a discussion of who actually names hurricanes. On that note, I ordered another dark rum and tonic and began telling what I knew.

For hundreds of years, hurricanes in the West Indies were named after the particular saint’s day on which the hurricane occurred. There’s a saint’s day for every day, so this wasn’t as random as one might think initially. Following this practice, Earl would have been named The St. Gregory Hurricane.

In this country, hurricanes were originally referred to by the year or by the place they hit. When meteorology was still new, our weather service wanted a more scientific method by which to track storms, so they began using a cumbersome latitude/longitude designation.

This all started to change during World War II, when Army Air Corp and Navy meteorologists began naming Pacific storms after their girlfriends and wives. Made them easier to keep track of. From 1950 to 1952, hurricanes were identified by standard radio names: Able, Baker, Charlie, etc. But, in 1953, the US Weather Bureau switched back to women’s names.

The practice continued until the late 70s when in a politically correct move, the World Meteorological Organization and the US National Weather Service added men’s names. Since then, names and lists have been revised again to include common English, Spanish, and French names – the languages of the Atlantic and Caribbean countries most impacted by hurricanes.

Nowadays, there are six lists of hurricane names that are reused every six years unless a storm creates enough havoc to have its name retired. Think Hugo, Andrew, and Katrina. No names begin with Q, U, X, Y, or Z, and if names are used up in one season, forecasters use letters from the Greek alphabet to name late season storms. A storm is named when it reaches tropical storm strength with winds of 39 mph. A storm becomes a hurricane when its wind speed reaches 75 mph.

So back to Earl. Friday in Rehoboth was gray and somewhat ominous-looking. People all over town nervously watched the sky, looking to the east, waiting for the storm. Despite Weather Channel warnings of tropical force winds and rain, very little happened. There was significant enough surf to close the beaches, but nothing special. Wind? A mere two blocks from the ocean, it was deadly still. Rain? I had to water my garden.

I think its fair to say Earl was a big disappointment. A lazy fella who couldn’t get it up. It happens. But, as we know, there’ll be another coming along – Karl, Matthew, Otto, and – should we get so far – Richard. Rest assured he won’t have that problem.

(Originally published Sept 17 in Letters from Camp Rehoboth)

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