Feature | An almanac of immeasurable things

If you were in the Western Hemisphere, and you walked into a room full of strangers talking about Katrina, Harvey, Mitchell or Maria, you might know who they were talking about. If you were from Taiwan, you might introduce Fanapi; if you were several centuries old, you could talk about San Francisco. In October 1526, San Francisco began gathering itself in the Caribbean, moving from the east towards what are currently known as the Leeward Islands and the Virgin Islands and, eventually, striking Puerto Rico with such force that a large part of San Juan was devastated, churches collapsed, crops destroyed. While few records detail precisely what transpired and who was affected, we can be sure that whatever did happen happened on the 4th of October. Falling on the date of the Feast of San Francisco, the event was so named, and its sketchy details were inked into history. Though the term ‘huracán’ [hurricane]—thought to be a blend of the Taíno juracán and the Mayan hunraqan—was still not widely used among Spanish colonists, the customs for naming such stormy events had by then been established. Whatever it was, it was ‘San Francisco’.

Figure 1: HMS Theseus, Vice Admiral Dacres, in the hurricane which happened
in September 1804 in the West Indies, Wikimedia Commons.

But by how many names might we know Maria? In the early colonial era, tropical storms would trudge anonymously until they happened upon land or a ship, at which point they would take historical shape by being named after a date or a place. But consider this storm, from September 1804, depicted in the above painting by Edward Burt. Striking multiple sites through the western Caribbean and the southern United States on consecutive days, it has historically been referred to, variously, as the 1804 Antigua Hurricane, Hurricane Santa Rosalía, the Great Charleston Gale of 1804, the 1804 Antigua–Charleston Hurricane, and no doubt many other lost names. As communications between different regions in the colonial Atlantic accelerated, the continuities between geographically distributed disasters became apparent, demanding that they be considered as a single force. Rather than multiple, unrelated calamities, dates and sites of landfall became the footprints of a various, single entity.

Likely familiar with the benefits of a catchy name, the nineteenth-century British meteorologist Clement Wragge named the tropical cyclones of the Pacific as a means of conceiving of them as singular entities. Beginning with biblical figures and beings from Polynesian traditions, after he was passed over for a position in Australia’s weather bureau, he turned to naming storms after the politicians who had thwarted his ambitions, relishing the opportunity to ‘publicly describe a politician as “causing great distress”’. (This drive for meteorological precision brought Australian history two Edmund Bartons: one who was the country’s first Prime Minister, and another sighted ‘wandering aimlessly around the Pacific’).

The unnamed protagonist of George Stewart’s 1941 novel Storm, inspired by Wragge, is a touch less vindictive. Bored of the mild weather, the fictional junior meteorologist pores over maps of barometric pressure, plotting potential storms with the names of his apparently numerous ex-girlfriends, a ‘sentimentality’ he justifies by noting that ‘each storm was really an individual and that he could more easily say … “Antonia” than “the low-pressure centre which was yesterday in latitude one-seventy-five East, longitude forty-two North”’. Like his relationships with their namesakes, most of these storms fizzle out, until he notices a pending collision between high and low-pressure systems off the coast of California. A project of measuring, predicting and creating, he plots ‘Baby Maria’, the novel’s titular storm, and ‘as if he had been a minister who had just christened a baby, he found himself smiling and benign, inchoately wishing it joy and prosperity. Good luck, Maria!’

‘The line consists of an infinite number of points; the plane an infinite number of lines; the volume an infinite number of planes, hypervolumes an infinite number of volumes …’ So begins Borges’s 1975 short story ‘The Book of Sand’. A Bible collector receives a strange guest who offers him a heavy book that, he promises, neither begins nor ends. The collector opens it and sees an image; the stranger tells him to pay close attention to that image, as he will never see it again. The book, the stranger says, is infinite: ‘None is the first page, none is the last.’ Sure enough, the collector tries to read its first page, but finds that there are always more pages between his thumb and the cover; he tries to reach the book’s end, but more pages always remain. Though initially enamoured with his purchase, poring over the book in a bid to understand its patterns, the utter arbitrariness of the content and its numeration slowly begins to horrify the collector.

After the US National Weather Service (USNWS) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recognised in 1953 that names were indeed more memorable than numbers, feminine-coded storms began to batter the Atlantic. Approaching storms were named according to six annually rotating lists. These names could not contain connotations liable to mislead the public. So, no Hurricane Dawns, Aprils or Montanas, lest their names suggest that a storm would hit at sunrise, surprise everyone in spring, or somehow strike the landlocked midwest. But this nomenclature bore the imprint of the patriarchal world that produced it, and in 1968 Roxcy Bolton began a campaign against feminine hurricanes. Arguing that women ‘deeply resent being arbitrarily associated with disaster’, Bolton, who would be described, apparently without irony, as ‘tempestuous’ in her New York Times obituary, eventually convinced National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Richard A Frank, and storms began receiving masculine-coded names in 1979. But not everyone agreed: in 1986, the Washington Post declared, ‘Somehow many of the men’s names don’t convey either the romance or the urgency that circumstances might warrant’, and a 2014 study argued that hurricanes named after women have been historically deadlier, because they have been taken less seriously. A name, it seems, is never just a name.

Nonetheless the benefits of naming storms seem to outweigh the risks, and calls to extend titles to other natural disasters have become common. Fires are already often named according to their geographical referents—California’s devastating Camp Fire in 2018 ran through Camp Creek Road. In 2002, the Meteorology Institute of the Free University, Berlin, began an adopt-a-vortex program, encouraging the public to participate in naming storms. Noting that they kill more people in North America than do hurricanes, some have demanded that heatwaves be named as a means of preparation. In 2012 The Weather Channel decided to name winter storms, arguing that ‘a storm with a name takes on a personality all its own’. A disaster with a name is easier to communicate, offers a greater sense of urgency, and reminds us of nature’s capacity for destruction. And, moreover, it can be fun: when The Weather Channel collaborated with the 2013–2014 graduating class of The Bozeman High School, Montana, to devise the list of names for the 2016 season, the world ended up with a winter storm named Yolo.

In addition to its communicative functions, naming a storm performs imaginative work that offers a sense of control over the aberrant forces of nature. Writing about the Oakland Firestorm of 1991, in which she and many others lost their houses, the disaster studies scholar Susanna Hoffman notes how she and other people in Berkeley and Oakland developed symbolic tools to ‘defang’ a hostile environment. Part of this included commemorative and symbolic actions that code a disastrous event into history. An anomaly that might otherwise indicate a world gone wild becomes a once-in-a-century event, its uncertainty and shock tamed by an anticipatable temporal pattern. The USNWS and WMO policies seem to recognise this; if a storm is particularly severe, its name will be retired from the list, as a mark of respect for the loss it produced, and in recognition of its singularity—we’ll never see another Katrina, Maria or Mitch, even though we’ll encounter figures like them. To name a disaster is to individualise it, to make it an exception, a discrete evil that can be isolated from a background and history of normalcy, and it is into that history that this aberrant entity can be safely retired.

When I think about Borges’s Bible collector, I wonder at what point he realised the infinite book was monstrous. (Borges himself is not especially clear, and this story about an infinite book runs barely two pages.) I imagine him leafing aimlessly, his fascination growing in tandem with his horror as he turns each new page. I think of him suddenly sleepless, filling the unwinding hours of the night with new strategies to fathom what this book is. Devising patterns in the page numbers. 40,514. 999. 172,228. 59. Feeling some sense of solace, even control, when he discovers that images appear in the book every 2000 pages. But realising that, even then, there would still be an infinite number of images awaiting him on pages yet unturned. As if the pages were not already-existing sheets contained within the book’s binding, but perpetually springing forth from the book itself, the volume was a condition rather than an object. Here it might become monstrous. But he couldn’t give it away, as a new reader would read (and so produce) new pages, and he couldn’t know what those pages might bring. Nor could he burn it, for the chance that its infinite smoke would smother the world. So, he hides the book in the one place it might lie unread: the national library.

My friend Carlos once invoked an earthquake to describe running into his ex-boyfriend. ‘Fue como “19s”’ [It was like ‘September 19’], he told me, and the comparison shook me: how could bumping into an ex-partner be anything like the earthquake that had levelled dozens of buildings in Mexico City two years earlier? In the moment he described, he was on one of the long red metrobuses that snake their way through central Mexico City. He’d boarded the bus, looked through the passengers for a space to stand, grabbed a pole, and taken out his phone. The face of the guy adjacent niggled at him, and he stole a second glance, then a third. He realised that, underneath the beard and a few extra kilos, was an ex-boyfriend, a guy with whom he’d had the kind of breakup that wouldn’t inspire the sentimentality of Stewart’s unnamed meteorologist. More than just awkward, he’d used the term ‘19s’ to describe it as uncanny, a creeping realisation that something he thought finished had emerged from the refuge of history.

Mexico City is a metropolis of resurfacing pasts. On 19 September 1985, the city was struck with an 8.1 magnitude earthquake, in which forty thousand people died, according to independent reporting. As the Mexican state grappled with the political fallout of the earthquake, it embarked on a frenzy of relegitimisation, promulgating regulations, forming institutional bodies, and installing technologies that would better manage the region’s seismicity. To develop a ‘culture of prevention’, the city government marked the earthquake’s anniversary as a day to both remember and to prepare for future earthquakes. Every 19 September, the newly installed early warning system would sound, and the city would stage a commemorative evacuation, the eerie, low-pitched tone of the alert expressing the state’s grief for the past disaster by its orientation towards future ones. But at 1:14 pm on 19 September 2017, the alert sounded two hours after the simulated evacuation, and, because of the date, people thought it was further commemorating the previous disaster rather than signalling a future one. Many remained in their buildings until the city began to collapse. Since then, ‘19s’ refers to three things: the 1985 earthquake, the 2017 earthquake, and the absurd fact of their coincidence. Where ‘19s’ once confined the disaster within a specific history, the term now denotes the uncannily unfolding event of the known twisting back into the unknown.

The fires of Australia’s ‘Black Summer’, and the smoky gauze that wrapped itself around the world, similarly defy the symbolic work of pointing, naming and defanging catastrophe. Successive federal governments have built Australia’s national economy on resource extraction and, particularly since 2013, vociferously resisted a move to renewable energy forms. Moreover, conservative state and federal governments have consistently underfunded land and forest management. These decisions are at the root of the ‘Black Summer’, but the event itself exceeds its name. Burning nonstop from June 2019 to May 2020, these fires created their own weather systems, enabling them to move against the wind, and generated dry lightning that permitted them to propagate themselves.

Ultimately, the fires burned through at least 20 per cent of the country’s forest, razing thousands of buildings and incinerating billions of organisms. Hundreds of species lost over 80 per cent of their habitat; the fires’ endless ash even smothered several species of freshwater fish. The onset of the fires was one of the first times the ‘Catastrophic’ fire-risk rating was deployed since its creation following a fire season in 2009. A category ‘off the conventional scale’, it indicates the ‘worst possible conditions’ in which flight is the only option. Currently, the second-safest level on Australia’s fire danger scale is ‘high’, and after the Black Summer, calls have been made for a category beyond catastrophic. Far outside the nomenclature of disaster, and generating new conditions of terror, this was a catastrophe that threatened not to end. In fact, ‘Black Summer’, refers to eleven months of waiting for fires to stop reproducing themselves.


Figure 2: The paths of all the named storms in the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season. Wikimedia Commons.


Rather than denoting a period in which hurricanes were merely likely, by convention, the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season referred to a blustery expanse of time and space in which storms were rarely absent. The most active season on record, it featured thirty named storms, fourteen hurricanes and seven major hurricanes. The 2020 storms exhausted the year’s list of names and began drawing on the Greek alphabet, an auxiliary list the WMO kept on hand but had only used once before. Eta and Iota, the fifth and ninth storms of the second list, were so destructive that their names warranted retiring by WMO custom. However, this would have required eliminating whole letters from the backup list, in an increasingly turbulent climate. Unable to retire, and safely historicise, the names of these disasters, the WMO retired the nomenclature itself, replacing the Greek alphabet with an auxiliary list of English names. Other apocalyptic grammars are also shifting: in 2021, the National Hurricane Centre decided that it would extend ‘hurricane season’ two weeks into spring, and some have recently speculated about the possibility of a Category 6 hurricane. Storm overlapping with storm, stretching beyond all conventions of beginning, end, and intensity. Like other recent catastrophes, the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season foregrounds the limits of language.

The manifold experiences of disaster cannot be contained by a single narrative. The disaster, the storm, the fire, the earthquake, the virus—these words are particulate metaphors occluding deep histories of human difference. So shot through with institutionalised histories of prejudice, the name of any disaster covers a harrowingly wide divergence of experiences and effects, belying summary. Some disasters not only defy singular narratives, they elude the efforts to be demarcated entirely—not only an irreducible plurality of experiences, but themselves irreducible.

Borges’s collector encounters an object that was itself a condition and, in the horror that he and the world might be swallowed by it, seeks to end what is ostensibly limitless. He closes the book, hides it away, and he forever avoids the street on which the library stands. Similarly, in early meteorological history, storms and disasters could be individuated from the conditions that generated them, a process of reifying and cataloguing that would contain the exceptional. Recent environmental events like 19s, Black Summer, and the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season seem to resist containment. Figure and ground reverse: rather than discrete aberrations that can be isolated from a background of normality, or the effects of an entity that can be identified, and reintegrated into history, they threaten to become tendencies rather than events, conditions rather than objects. It is not that recent storms or fires or viruses are inherently more anomalous, and illuminate a greater distance between the normalcy of everyday life and the aberrance of occasional disaster, but rather that the gap between the normal and the aberrant is itself closing. Like the library lost to an endless book, an unfinished earthquake re-emerges from history and seasons refuse their calendar.

If conceptualising disasters as discrete, nameable figures is becoming increasingly impossible, where does this leave language? How can we talk cogently about phenomena that refuse their names? This seems an especially pertinent question, witnessing the destabilisation of what we mean when we say ‘Covid-19’, and specific countries announcing the ‘post-covid’ era of a pandemic that is, by all accounts, rampantly ongoing. The ‘Great Quarantine’, as some have taken to calling it, evokes an image of a world that came together to share and rationally redistribute resources, rather than the ambient death, sacrificial logics, vaccine capitalism and accelerated culture wars that have characterised the last two years. This isn’t a merely narrational problem; the rapidity of emerging variants troubles the hypostatisation of Covid-19 as an entity. Initially named, like historical storms, for the places they struck, now, like the excess of the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season, variants wear Greek letters without geographical or historical referents. At some nebulous subset of Omicron, each named variant is a discrete appendix in a continuous series, simultaneously extending the pandemic, and promising the possibility of a conclusion.



Lachlan Summers

Lachlan Summers grew up on Bundjalung country and now lives in Mexico City researching earthquakes. His recent essays have appeared in Exertions and Noēma, and he is a contributing editor at the Society for Cultural Anthropology and The Familiar Strange. His tweets, broadly reviled, are at @backup_sandwich.

More by Lachlan Summers ›

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