The devastating aftermath of the nameless Louisiana floods proves that naming storms increases awareness, speeds recovery, and saves lives

Too little, too late.
Too little, too late.
Image: AP Photo/Max Becherer
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The recent unprecedented flooding in Louisiana caused 13 deaths in the state, damaged more than 60,000 homes across the 20 areas that were declared disaster zones, and the Red Cross estimated relief efforts to cost at least $35 million. These were the devastating effects of a storm with no name.

Across the world, naming storms has been an effective way of raising awareness on many fronts. Citizens, media, and the government can better plan for, respond to, and recover from a storm’s aftermath when they have a name to assign it. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), naming storms makes it easier for the media to report on and heightens interest in warnings among locals, which increases community preparedness. It also makes it easier to track on social media, which is helpful both before an after one has passed through—using a storm name’s hashtag in searches is a convenient way to find current news and quickly coordinate responses.

The media also plays a significant part in increasing awareness of incoming disastrous events. If effective, their coverage warns people and enables them to prepare for the onslaught of what’s to come, and also helps gather support for recovery efforts after the fact. But the storm that flooded Louisiana failed to gain the media’s attention. This was evident in the lack of timely media coverage, with some media outlets late to the scene while others noted a saturated news season dominated by the presidential election and the Olympics.

Louisiana locals were disappointed when barely anyone took notice—both before and after the event, and by both locals and the national media. “When you have a storm that is unnamed—it wasn’t a hurricane, it wasn’t a tropical event—people underestimate the impact that it would have,” Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Some Louisiana residents said they were not given sufficient warning about how severe the storm would be. “We got no calls, no texts, no nothing. So that’s why I didn’t panic, because I didn’t hear a siren. I didn’t hear anything,” Linda Smith, a Baton Rouge resident, told NPR. With no name attached to it, the storm simply wasn’t perceived to be a big deal. “With a hurricane, they kind of warn you. But this, they didn’t warn you,” Jayda Guidry, another Baton Rouge resident, told the Washington Post.

Nameless storms aren’t the only natural events causing damage. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), more than 40 weather and climate disasters without names—including tornadoes, wildfires, drought, hail storms, and winter storms—resulted in losses of at least $1 billion each in the US since 2012. Tropical storms and hurricanes are the only types of storms given an official name by the government in the US. (Natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis can’t be predicted, which is why they are not named.)

However, many other countries attach names to all kinds of weather events. This has been proven to lead to positive results such as increased public awareness, better preparation, and improved disaster response.

In Berlin, the Institute for Meteorology of the Free University has been naming both high- and low-pressure systems since 1954. In 2002, the institute started the Adopt-a-Vortex project, where anyone can adopt a high or low pressure area by giving it a name. The project allows the public to participate in the naming process, resulting in increased awareness of weather systems.

In the Philippines, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) has been assigning local names to storms since 1963. PAGASA uses the international name codes from the WMO list to monitor a storm outside of the Philippines, but once a weather disturbance enters the country and is classified as a tropical depression, PAGASA immediately gives it a local name. One of the strongest storms to hit the Philippines was known internationally as Typhoon Haiyan, which was renamed Yolanda when it entered the country.

According to NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML), PAGASA feels that assigning a name to a weather system helps enhance public attention. “Since tropical and/or monsoon depressions can bring very heavy rainfall to the nation which often results in disastrous flooding, the weather service feels that assigning a name helps to enhance public attention given to a system,” says AOML. They also noted that Filipinos living in rural areas can better remember local names as opposed to international names, and having names assigned by PAGASA emphasizes the fact that a cyclone is within Philippine territory and potentially a threat to the nation.

Last year, the UK Met Office launched a pilot project to name storms in partnership with Met Éireann, Ireland’s National Meteorological Service. The project enabled the public to suggest names for storms likely to affect the United Kingdom and Ireland. “The concept was to see if giving storms names improved public awareness and preparedness ahead of the storms arriving in the UK,” says Oli Claydon, press officer for the Met Office. “Our weather has the potential to impact people’s lives. It is important to raise awareness of severe weather before it hits, so everyone can keep safe and protected.”

According to Claydon, there was a strong response to the concept, with thousands of names suggested by the public. The names chosen for this year’s list include Eva, Frank, Jake, Katie, Rhonda, and Steve.

The project proved to be a success, with storm names widely used by the public, media and other organizations. “A YouGov survey based on the first seven storms of the season last year noted that 55% of those surveyed changed their behavior by preparing for disruption or seeking further advice as a result of hearing of a named storm,” Claydon says. “Partner organizations, particularly the Environment Agency, and emergency responders reported that the naming of storms helped them better communicate the risks from weather.”

Gerald Fleming, head of forecasting at Met Éireann, says the pilot project helped prepare Irish citizens for the impact of the Atlantic storm season. “There was an immediate acceptance of the storm names through all media, and the severe weather messages were more clearly communicated,” he says. “This was especially so during Christmas and New Year when a number of storms passed in quick succession. The naming helped us clearly distinguish between them, and delineate their likely impacts.”

Claydon says the project will continue for a second run from 2016 to 2017 and will be adapted to include more than one weather type. “We have extended the criteria to include windstorms where the biggest impacts may be from rain which could lead to flooding, or snow.”

In the US, a similar approach was taken by The Weather Channel, which began naming winter storms during the 2012/2013 winter season. But their methodology of assigning a name to a storm and overall intent was met with criticism. Many Americans felt that this was more of a marketing ploy to editorialize natural weather events and drag eyes to screens—and thereby increasing ad revenue—and did not have the citizen’s best interests at heart.“The Weather Channel’s list of winter storm names is a brilliant, near-zero-budget advertising campaign that uses you as their mouthpiece,” says Dennis Mersereau for Gawker.

In contrast to Berlin, the Philippines, and the UK, where the naming of was initiated and coordinated by established universities and official weather bureaus, The Weather Channel—a privately owned broadcast enterprise—did so with little consultation. Universities and weather bureaus in the aforementioned countries set criteria for storm names based on scientific data from wind speeds, wind direction, and atmospheric pressure, whereas The Weather Channel’s decisions were driven by population density—meaning that storms in less populated areas were given less attention—and often named by a group of high-school students in Montana. Names in the past have included Jonas, Mars, and—really—Yolo.

As evidenced by what has been carried out in different areas of the world, using names for natural weather events helps citizens, the media, and the government prepare, respond and recover. Naming natural weather events can be a solution to lessen the destructive effects of meteorological catastrophes—but it has to be done responsibly and by the right bodies for the right reasons.