What’s in a name? On Nemo, the Weather Channel, and the utility of naming storms


Nemo. The name doesn’t exactly strike fear, but it has its share of loathing. Who picked that dumb name? Why would you name a winter storm after a fish? Isn’t it just a publicity stunt by the Weather Channel?

I have to confess that I was as skeptical as anyone – until I found out whose idea it was. It came from Bryan Norcross, and the intention wasn’t just to hype his employer. “The fact is that Twitter needs a hashtag,” he told the NY Times, and that isn’t all there is to it. By naming a storm they develop a shorthand that makes it easier to issue warnings and get people to take them seriously. And that’s where Norcross’ reputation comes into play and why I’m willing to give it a chance.

It was 23 August 1992. It became clear that not only was Hurricane Andrew going to strike heavily populated Dade County, Florida, but this was the storm that had been feared for decades, the one that would put everything to the test. “By late in the day Sunday, it was clear that it was on a strengthening cycle,” Norcross recalled, “So there came a time as I saw this happening that I thought, ‘Uh oh! This is going to be the big one.’”

Norcross’ shift started the next day at 9AM on channel 4 and WHYI on the radio. He stayed on the air for 23 hours coaching people through the storm and telling them how they could make it through the pounding and screaming as the world around them disintegrated. Recalling memoirs from the 1926 hurricane that he’d read, he suggested that people whose homes were ripped apart get into the bathtub with a mattress over them. “That mattress came back to me and that became, ‘OK, folks, this is what I want you to do,”’ he said. “It turned out to be a good answer for a lot of people.”

Anyone who lived south of about Bird Road in 1992 probably remembers Norcross as a hero, the man who might well have saved their lives. To this day, the “Andrew People” often stop to thank him and tell him how important he was to them in the time of terror.

Flash forward to today. Norcross is a consultant with the Weather Channel and still dedicated to giving people the information that may well save their lives. He came up with the idea of naming Winter storms to make it easier to personify them and craft the story so that people will take them more seriously. This year was the first year they have done it consistently, working off of a list of Greek and Latin names Norcross himself developed. It’s all alphabetical, like hurricane names, and Nemo (Latin for “no one”) is just the 14th one big enough to get a handle. Nothing more.

How has it worked out? The short answer is that through this nasty storm there has been a convenient shorthand that has proved too useful to ignore. New York Mayor Bloomberg among many other officials have used the name. It made it easier to get the word out and make it stick.

The National Weather Service has no official position on the naming convention. The Weather Channel has said that if there were “official” names they’d switch over easily. It was simply something that Norcross thought they should try to see if it worked. They had to get halfway through the list before there was one that really made the difference.

Should we hate that the Weather Channel started doing this? The short answer is no, it was done for all the right reasons. It’s a bit hard to get used to, but it seems to have its purpose. More to the point, there appeared to be a need to help get the word out and someone stepped up to give it a try. Why not?

The idea should still be evaluated on its merits, and through the dumping of three feet of very heavy snow on Connecticut it seems as though there are some. But if you have trouble trusting the motives for giving it a try please don’t. Norcross is a real hero to many of us and he’s been there when things got really bad working tirelessly to save lives with good information. If he think naming Winter storms is worth trying then let’s just see how it all works out.

Besides, it’s not named after a cartoon fish after all. It’s just a name – although after this storm it will become the handle for a series of stories that build their way up to a legend. The name, like the process and the idea, will take on a life of its own.