The word on the street is that we had an earthquake on the East Coast. It was even felt up here in New York, though not by me. It was apparently more noticeable in New York City, but in the surrounding area, experiencing the earthquake depended on being near the coast, on a higher floor in a building, or in bed staring at the ceiling.
Not to be outdone, of course, Hurricane Irene has decided that she needs attention, and so talk has turned from the fairly anti-climactic ‘earthquake’ to the exciting new prospect of floods, felled trees, and power outages. It is claimed that Irene will be the worst storm in the area since 1938.
As far as natural disasters go, we in the Northeast of the United States usually have it easy. Blizzards, sure, but an earthquake and a hurricane? In the same week? Might it really be the end of the world as we know it?
Irene is already spreading chaos and panic. Stores are selling out of batteries, camping lanterns, generators, and candles. People are making arrangements to have Monday off from work and obsessively checking updated weather reports on their smart phones. And this is just the first wave. Come Saturday, even those normally not given to anxiety will be frantically searching for a store that still has fresh drinking water and beer on their shelves. The supply of potato chips has already been decimated. Seriously.
This sure is a lot of trouble from a storm whose name means ‘peace.’
The name Irene came from Latin via French, but before that, it was Greek: Irini (peace; Eirini; Ειρήνη). Though her name came from the Greek goddess who personified peace, one of the notable historical women named Irene gave us a hint of her brutal power: “The name was common in the Byzantine Empire, notably being borne by an 8th-century empress, who was the first woman to lead the Empire. She originally served as regent for her son, but later had him killed and ruled alone.”
Well, that at least seems more in keeping with the 115-mile-per-hour wind of a Category 3 hurricane that is currently putting the smackdown on the Bahamas, and which astronauts in the International Space Station have called “terrifying.”
Naming hurricanes has had a long, interesting history. In the days before The National Hurricane Center had the power to officially name hurricanes, they were often named after coordinates, saints, politicians, or mythical figures. In 1950, Atlantic storms were named after the International Alphabet, but when it changed in 1952, the naming scheme had to be revised. The following year, the practice of giving women’s names to storms started.
Names were recycled each year until 1960 when it was determined that new names were needed, so a four-year cycle of names was instituted. In the 70s, complaints about the practice of only using women’s names prompted the NHC to include alternating male and female names. Starting in 1979, a woman’s name started the Atlantic season while a man’s name started the Pacific season.
According to Wikipedia, “The World Meteorological Organization now creates and maintains the annual lists. Names are used on a six-year rotation, with the deadliest or most notable storms having their names retired from the rotation.” That means that this year’s hurricanes were last used in 2005, though I imagine the name Katrina will not be making another appearance. This year, K belongs to Katia.
The Wall Street Journal blog, however, finds it ‘eerie’ that Katrina made landfall on 29 August 2005, and Irene is expected to start her assault on New York on 28 August. It also points out some similarities between Irene 2005 and Irene 2011: “It formed in August, became a hurricane and tracked near the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But the 2005 version peaked at Category 2 status and stayed out in the ocean, causing no deaths. Irene 2011 has already strengthened to a Category 3 storm and is expected to hit Category 4 soon.”
I’m not entirely sure of what to expect with Irene. We’ve been ‘hit’ by ‘hurricanes’ before, but they’ve often weakened considerably by the time they got this far north, having become what most of us would consider bad thunderstorms. Though I’ve been in earthquakes more significant than the trembles that shook Manhattan earlier this week, I’ve never been in a proper hurricane. The closest I came was in 1992 when Andrew hit southern Florida on the morning of 24 August. It was a Category 5 when it reached Florida and is considered the 4th strongest landfall in U.S. history. I was 367 miles to the north in Gainesville, FL and just getting to campus for the beginning of my last college semester. The bright sun and gentle breeze made it a lovely morning.
And so, Irene looms over the horizon, either preparing to give us Northerners a taste of what a real hurricane is like, or barking furiously only to reveal a toothless bite. Will Irene be a murderous Byzantine empress or a Greek goddess of peace? We’ll know in the next few days what she has in store for us.
And speaking of stores, I’d better get to one before all the good snacks are gone!