The History Behind Naming Hawaiian Hurricanes

Oct 17, 2014

Credit NASA
Credit National Weather Service

Tropical Storm Ana continues to churn towards Hawai’i. Its name was selected from a list, reserved for storms formed in Hawaiian waters. HPR’s Molly Solomon takes a closer look at the history behind the naming of Hawaiian hurricanes.

What’s in a name? In the case of Hawaiian hurricanes -- quite a lot. Robert Ballard is with the Central Pacific Hurricane Center. “If the disturbance or tropical depression develops into a named storm between 140°W and the dateline, then it gets a central pacific name.”

A Hawaiian name. Ballard says these names are rarely used, since most storms form farther East, which explains the not-so-Hawaiian sound of Iselle and Julio.

In the late 1970s, the Central Pacific Hurricane Center began assigning Hawaiian names. But that original list caused a stir in the Hawaiian community, where many felt the names chosen often reflected negative meanings.

“Iniki is like a painful snip or bite, literally a pinch,” said Puakea Nogelmeier, a professor of Hawaiian language at UH Mānoa. “The one that hit before, Hurricane Iwa, means the thief, the snatcher. Those aren’t particularly good names.”

Nogelmeier says after Hurricane Iniki hit Kaua‘i, he began receiving phone calls during his radio program Ka Leo Hawai‘i. “We got lots of callers, old Hawaiian speaking callers, who said, ‘Tell them please stop naming the storms with nasty names.’ Nogelmeier says it’s tradition that if you call it, it will come. “There was no intention there, but the process by which [the Central Pacific Hurricane Center] were picking names wasn’t very guided.”

Nogelmeier, along with his colleague Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio, worked with the Hurricane Center to revise the original list of Hawaiian names. The origin of naming tropical storms dates back to the 1800s. They were originally given names inspired by the first ship that encountered and reported each storm. For example in 1843, a cyclone that was heading towards the southern coast of the Big Island, was called 'Cyclone of the Lark', after the German ship that spotted it.

Ana -- which means to measure or evaluate -- is the second storm system this year with a Hawaiian name.