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Why Does PAGASA Name Typhoons After People?

You will finally understand why Pagasa names storms after people.
by Ara Eugenio
Oct 30, 2020
This photo taken on the evening of Oct. 5, 2019 shows lightning strike off the eastern coastal town of Baler, Aurora province facing the Pacific Ocean.
Photo/s: Contributed Photo

(UPDATE) Typhoon Fabian barely touched land yet it brought rainy weather for one week. The name also sounds like a barangay captain. What comes next, reads like a character list for old school komiks: Gorio, Huaning, Isang and Jolina.

Battered by an average of 20 typhoons yearly, the Philippines adds a local name to a storm's international name the moment it enters its "area of responsibility." Super Typhoon Yolanda's international name, Haiyan, means bird. Milenyo, which leveled Metro Manila's billboards in the mid 2000s had the international name Xangsane, which means elephant.

So why does the Philippines name typhoons after people?

Names are easier to remember than numbers and technical terms, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). In the past, tropical cyclones were named after their latitude and longitude coordinates which caused confusion over which storm was being reported. Appending names to storms makes news reporting easier as it heightens interest in warnings and increases community preparedness, it said. 

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How does PAGASA name typhoons?

Globally, tropical cyclones have international names. Yolanda was Haiyan, Ondoy was Ketsana, and incoming Rolly is known as Goni. As soon as a storm system arrives within the Philippine area of responsibility (PAR), they are assigned predetermined Filipino-sounding names to establish easier recall among the public, PAGASA weather specialist Bernard Punzalan said. 

In 1998, Pagasa launched the “Name A Bagyo” contest where Filipinos submitted names they want used after typhoons that enter the Philippines. Since then, the weather bureau has been releasing a list of typhoon names at the start of every year, approved by the WMO.

Curated alphabetically to determine the number of typhoons hitting the country (Rolly for R as the 18th letter in alphabet, hence it's the 18th typhoon for the year 2020), names repeat every four years. But some storms leave too much destruction in their wake, prompting PAGASA to remove them from the list of names and replace them with new ones.

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"Kung meron mang damaging na bagyo for this year, papalitan na siya ng pangalan o i-de-decommission. Kumbaga wag na balikan ang mapait na ala-ala," Punzalan told reportr.

If a storm claimed more than 300 lives and destroyed P1 billion in property, its name is retired, like Yolanda and Ondoy. Reusing the names will cause panic since even if the storm is weak, people will always associate the name to the destructive typhoon, he said.

If the existing list of typhoon names is exhausted because more typhoons arrived than expected, forecasters also have an auxillary list prepared, once again starting from letter A up to the letter J. 

"Most of the time, random talaga yung naming. Depende kung ano yung naisip," a PAGASA forecaster involved in the naming process said.

Naming typhoons can also be political

But some names in the list are reconsidered, especially if one can be quite 'controversial', Punzalan said. A few years ago, a typhoon was supposed to be named 'Nonoy', but the agency had to replace it to avoid confusion with former President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III's name.

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Historically, in the United States where the naming system was patterned after, the naming process was seen as political. Personal vendettas used to play out in the naming of storms,History channel report noted. 

Online travel magazine Atlast Obscura said that for at least 150 years, the naming choices were “fraught with racism and sexism, personal preferences and vendettas". Storm names were borrowed from places and saints, wives and girlfriends, and disliked public figures, they said.

During World War II, U.S. Air Force pilots, Navy soldiers, and weather forecasters started naming storms after their wives and girlfriends.

"Very conscious sila about protecting themselves from the typhoon, so may tendency to name it. Ang nangyayari, depende sa nakakita kung ano yung name, at usually, pangalan ng kasintahan nila or ng ex-girlfriend," Punzalan said.

Come early 1950s, the U.S. decided to to continue adapting the female-only naming system and as soon as it became official, weathermen began referring to them more as if they were real women.

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Sexist clichés  like a typhoon was “temperamental" and “teasing” or “flirting” with a coastline, were often used, triggering a movement among feminists who then started persuading weather forecasters not to name tropical storms after only women.

Among them was a woman named Roxcy Bolton who died in 2017. "Women, Ms. Bolton said at the time, ‘deeply resent being arbitrarily associated with disaster," her New York Times obituary noted.

2016 study in the US found that feminine-named Hurricanes are deadlier than masculine-named ones, "because of lower perceived risk and consequently, less preparedness". There is no local data that shows this is also happening in the Philippines despite initially adopting the same system. 

Filipino women's names starting from A to Y and ending with -NG or -ING like “Auring,” and “Yayang" were used. But overtime, as it became harder to think of name replacements, PAGASA started using more male ones.

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For 2020, 17 out of the 25 Filipino typhoon names are traditionally male. 

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