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What's in a Name, Katrinas?

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Created: September 10, 2005
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By Allen Salkin
SOURCE: New York Times
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September 11, 2005
What's in a Name, Katrinas?
By ALLEN SALKIN

EACH Katrina is handling the problem in her own way.

One, Katrina Petrillo, 13, an eighth grader at Convent of the Sacred Heart school in Manhattan, got so tired of being mocked as "Hurricane Katrina" by her summer vacation acquaintances that she told teachers on the first day of school on Thursday that she is now going by "Kat."

"I realized my name is going to go down in history," she said, "as one of the biggest storms ever."

Others with last year's 281st most popular baby name for a girl are coping with their fateful association with the devastating storm by trying everything from defending their name against those who might make fun of it to questioning the hurricane naming system.

Katrina Leskanich, the former lead singer of Katrina and the Waves, who lives in London, said that when her Web site began getting thousands of hits - more than 22,000 on Aug. 29, the day the hurricane hit New Orleans - she thought it was because her new solo song was getting airplay on BBC radio.

Now she's glad that because of a decision made a month before the storm, her new album's release has been delayed from Sept. 5 to October. "It would have looked like the most tasteless exercise in self-promotion."

She said she hopes her band's 1985 hit "Walking on Sunshine" might eventually become an anthem for New Orleans recovery.

Another famous Katrina, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the left-leaning publication The Nation, became incensed when Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk radio host, began referring to the storm as "Hurricane Katrina vanden Heuvel."

In a blog on the magazine's Web site, Ms. vanden Heuvel dismissed the personal attack and wheeled the issue into more comfortable terrain, writing, "We should be asking serious questions about why the Iraq war has led the White House to divert funds from an urgent project to upgrade levees and pumping stations in Louisiana, and why there aren't enough National Guard troops on hand in what is one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history."

Katrina, which means pure, reached its pinnacle of popularity as a name in 1980, when it was the 90th most common female baby name. Following only the whims of the fashion climate, 50 years ago the name was 489th in popularity, according to the Social Security Administration. It climbed to its peak 25 years later. But it slipped to No. 127 in 1990 and continued to fall.

Nevertheless plenty of Katrina pride remains.

"We have nothing to be ashamed of," wrote a contributor to a Yahoo group who identified herself online as Coloradokat65. "Katrina is a lovely name."

Before the storm hit, there were a lot of jokes on the group's message board: "My parents heard on the radio that she was shaping up to be the most expensive," wrote another member, "and thought that it fit me to a tee."

But as the reality sunk in, the mood darkened. "Is anyone else depressed about having to share your name with a deadly hurricane?" wrote a member of the group who used the screen name kelsken.

"At first I was too excited about seeing my name all over TV," wrote another member in response, "but as this hurricane progressed I will always remember my name associated with tragedy."

Katrinas can expect three to five years of stoking bad memories before the sharpness of the pain recedes, said Katrina Cochran, a disaster relief psychologist who has worked with victims of the Oklahoma City bombings and the Sept. 11 attacks.

Ms. Cochran, who has been hired by Church World Service to counsel hurricane victims, said she hopes they will forgive her name. "People will see me trying to help and offering care and compassion, and it might actually help them recover more quickly," she said.

Despite the crisis, the name Katrina might not be as finished as, say, Adolf is.

Hurricane Hugo, the deadly 1989 storm, did not doom that name. In 1988 it was No. 439; in 1989, No. 407; and in 1990 it was No. 415. Last year it was at 367.

"How about doing away with names?" asked Katrina Heron, author of "Safe: The Race to Protect Ourselves in a Newly Dangerous World" (HarperCollins 2005), and a former editor at The New York Times Magazine. "Every time this horrible natural disaster strikes some group of people gets sideswiped."

Ms. Heron has an alternative idea. "I think we should name hurricanes after vegetables we hate."

A spokesman from the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, which issues names of hurricanes based on an alphabetical list that rotates annually and repeats every six years, did not respond to messages, but Stu Ostro, a senior meteorologist at the Weather Channel, said the world body was unlikely to change the system, which started in 1953. Experts had found that just giving storms numbers or locations was confusing.

"The goal is to give valuable information clearly that can help save lives," Mr. Ostro said. "Maybe that's some solace the people named Camille or Katrina or Charley or Ivan can take."

The World Meteorological Organization does have a policy of retiring the names of particularly vicious storms, like Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, which pounded Florida last year, so this is likely to be the last Hurricane Katrina.

For now Ms. Petrillo, like the other Katrinas, is coping, and helping. She and a group of friends set up a lemonade stand in Fair Harbor on Fire Island and raised $1,000 for the Red Cross's hurricane relief fund.

And, she admitted, she may just be using the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina to pursue a long-held fantasy.

"I always did practice signing my autograph 'Kat' when I was younger," she said. "I always figured that if I became famous, it would be easier to just write Kat."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company



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