Saturday, July 27, 2019

Liz Skilton's "Tempest: Hurricane Naming and American Culture"

Liz Skilton is an Assistant Professor of History and holds the J.J. Burdin M.D. and Helen B. Burdin/Board of Regents Endowed Professorship in Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Skilton specializes in the history of disaster and human response to it. Her research has been featured in venues like National Geographic and the Washington Post.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Tempest: Hurricane Naming and American Culture, and reported the following:
From page 99:
[…] So it was that, a week after she had first addressed the Steering Committee, Bolton would have a chance to meet with the committee again, this time to plead her case informally. Again, Bolton proposed that alternative names be used, such as those for birds; and again, Bolton’s suggestions were dismissed. Bolton was not dismayed by this response, though. She later recounted how the weathermen fell right into her trap: by denying the use of birds’ names because of the Audubon Society’s objections, they illustrated the negativity associated with the use of names for hurricanes. This was something Bolton pointed out as the debate continued.

Despite Bolton’s vigorous presentations, both in the formal debate and at the luncheon, the committee decided to defer the discussion to the following year. Three weeks after the conference ended, the Weather Bureau’s Steering Committee chair, Karl Johannessen, responded officially to Bolton’s comments. He commended her ‘calm manner of presentation,’ stating that they believed that ‘the majority of women do not hold Mrs. Bolton’s views on the naming of hurricanes.’ This view was based on the information collected from Director Robert Simpson, who stated that, for every letter the NHC received from women requesting the names be changed, there were ten requesting that their name be added to the list. Nor did Johannessen believe that the hurricane-naming system was flawed: ‘The committee did not agree that the present practice of naming hurricanes is derogatory to the female sex, or is viewed as being derogatory by people at large.’ In fact, he further argued, ‘The practice is widely adhered to by all nations involved with hurricanes and typhoons.’ Because no ‘suitable alternative methods’ have been proposed, and because ‘the present practice has the support of the general public, including women,’ the Steering Committee voted to retain the current system.

In the months after Bolton’s first appearance at the Interdepartmental Hurricane Warning Conference, newspapers throughout the country applauded the Weather Bureau’s decision to keep the current system of hurricane naming. “By maintaining the tradition,” declared US Meteorological Director George Cressman, weathermen were simply continuing ‘a part of American heritage.’[…]
Opening Tempest to page 99 is like eavesdropping on a heated conversation. It is easy to pick up the context of the drama and its cast of characters. There is a spirited debate underway over the National Weather Bureau’s (then-current) practice of naming hurricanes exclusively after females (like Audrey, Betsy, and Camille). On one side are preeminent Weather Bureau officials in favor of the feminine system: the chair of a steering committee tasked with reviewing the storm naming practice, the director of the National Hurricane Center, and the overall director of US meteorological affairs. On the other side is a 1970s feminist named Roxcy Bolton.

While page 99 provides little detail on Bolton’s background or the situation that led her to crusade for a change in hurricane names, it is clear from the excerpted text that this is not her first attempt to change the names, nor is it the Weather Bureau’s first attempt to defend the system. The latest round situates them in the heat of the current argument—whether the female-only hurricane naming system could be replaced with a system containing the names of birds (or other wildlife) to remove the association of women with destructive objects. Not surprisingly, weather officials do not agree. With an offhanded retort that “the Audubon Society might object,” they fell into Bolton’s “trap” of pointing out the hypocrisy of a naming system that favored the inclusion of one sex and not the other. Following this verbal misstep, the Weather Bureau scrambled to defend the naming system using well-researched data and proclamations of tradition, eventually deciding to defer a decision on this issue to another day.

As page 99 comes to a close, we are left wondering about the conclusion of the naming debate. Would feminist Roxcy Bolton win? Or the weathermen? Reading past page 99, we already know the final result: eventually, the names changed. Today's system alternates between male- and female-named storms because of debates like the one illustrated on page 99 and others over whether to adopt, keep, and alter a naming system meant to describe disastrous objects. Seventy-five years after first use these names are still highly contentious, causing us to wonder about their origins every year. But as the latest storm–Barry–develops in the Gulf [ed. note: this entry was written on July 11, 2019], we are reminded that no matter what we call them, the hurricane continues to form.
Visit Liz Skilton's website.

--Marshal Zeringue