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World Meteorological Organization does away with Greek alphabet to name storms this season

Police officer directing traffic, Elsa (copy)

A Charleston police officer directs traffic around a flooded Septima P. Clark Parkway following Tropical Storm Elsa. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

The World Meteorological Organization has decided to do away with the Greek alphabet to name storms this hurricane season. 

A new supplemental list of names for tropical cyclones was implemented starting this year if the regular rotating list is exhausted.

Wanda is the sole name remaining on this year's list of storm names, so the new supplemental list could be activated soon.

Last year, the list of named Atlantic storms was exhausted before the hurricane season was over, prompting the use of the Greek alphabet to label tropical cyclones. 

This had only happened once before, in 2005, when there were 27 named storms in the Atlantic basin. The 2020 season produced 30 named storms, including nine that took letters from the Greek alphabet as names. 

But the use of the Greek alphabet during that record-breaking season exposed a number of shortcomings, according to the World Meteorological Organization. That is what led to the creation of the new supplemental set of names.

For starters, the WMO said there was too much focus on the use of the Greek alphabet instead of the impact from the storms. And when some of the names were translated into other languages used within the region, it created confusion. 

Another issue was some of the letters used last season, like Zeta, Eta and Theta, had similar pronunciations and occurred in succession. This led to messaging challenges rather than "streamlined and clear communication," the organization said in a news release.

Eta and Iota had to be retired by the WMO Hurricane Committee after last season because of how severe their impacts were. The two hurricanes hit Central America as Category 4 storms in Nov. 2020, about 13 days apart. Together, they caused hundreds of deaths. Iota sent an estimated 40,000 people to shelters, according to the New York Times

The Hurricane Committee had no formal plan for retiring Greek names, but future use of Eta and Iota would have been inappropriate, the WMO said. 

Ron Morales, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Charleston Office, said a big concern from his standpoint was the limited number of letters in the Greek alphabet. 

"There's only so many letters, so many names, and those could eventually be retired, and then what?" Morales said. "So it makes sense to come up with a new set of names that they can rotate through just like all the other names and not have to worry about that."

Morales said it is almost a guarantee that the Atlantic will move into the new list of names before the 2021 hurricane season is over. 

More than a month remains in the season, which officially ends on Nov. 30. A lot of activity is continuing to show up in weather models and could likely get named at some point, although the potential storms are not guaranteed to hit the United States, Morales said. 

During October and November, storms tend to form closer to the United States in the Gulf of Mexico and off the southeast coast. So essentially, "they're closer to our backyard," Morales said. 

But as it gets later into the hurricane season, it is harder for storms to get really strong, especially if they form close to the coast. One reason is because the water is beginning to cool down. 

It is important that people remain vigilant because, although the chances of strong storms diminishes later in the season, they are not impossible. 

Hurricane Wire is a pop-up newsletter during hurricane season that delivers anyone who lives on the East Coast all the information they need to know as storms brew in the Atlantic and beyond.

Follow Shamira McCray on Twitter @ShamiraTweets.