Haiti: In the eye of the storm, the sultry sounding Chantal

The last Chantal  moved across the Caribbean Sea in August 2001

The last Chantal moved across the Caribbean Sea in August 2001

Everyone’s battening down the hatches. Everyone that has hatches to batten down, that is. In Haiti, that means an awful lot of people don’t have the luxury of hatches, battening down, or much refuge from Chantal.

A beautiful, almost sultry name for a storm. Chantal is the third named storm of the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. There’s the risk of everything getting dangerously familiar (and up close and personal) when a tropical storm acquires a name. This means it’s got to the point when maximum sustained winds are anywhere between 34 knots (or 39 mph) and 64 knots (or 74 mph). That’s the point at which the distinctive cyclonic shape starts to develop, although there’s no guarantee it will be present.

From Tuesday, Chantal has been barrelling into the Caribbean Sea. By this evening, it will be over Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. By the weekend, it will travel up through the Bahamas and toward the US mainland.

In Haiti, the approaching storm is being watched with trepidation. So much havoc can be caused to so many, so quickly by every natural event. Deforested and vulnerable, Haiti’s situation is always precarious. A few extra inches of rain means flash flooding and mudslides. Chantal is expected to bring at least eight inches. For Haiti, that might be calamitous.

So, what makes Chantal a tropical storm rather than a cyclone?

Its intensity and geographical location.

Tropical cyclones, it seems, are classified by intensity into depressions, storms, and the more intense typhoon (in the northwestern Pacific), which is the same as a hurricane (in the north Atlantic and northeast Pacific), which is the same as a cyclone (in the southern hemisphere or the Indian Ocean).

And why is Chantal called Chantal?

As TIME magazine explained back in 2010, “Hurricanes and other threatening tropical storms were first given names in 1950 to make it easy for the public to know which particular storm warnings or news reports to follow.” And for each Atlantic season (from June to November every year), there are six lists with 21 names each. After each list has been used, they are repeated, meaning each list is used every seventh year, with names getting retired if their particular storm causes severe damage, death or injuries. (There won’t be a Katrina again, for instance).

The article went on to say that back in 1955, the early days of storm-naming, Norman Hagen, an official with the US Weather Bureau (which was tasked with creating the names), told TIME his job was not easy. He could only use girls’ names (male names were introduced only in 1979) and was not allowed to incorporate state names, cities, months, types of weather or times of day (so no Georgia, Charlotte, June, Gail, Dawn). Mr Hagen was reducing to using baby-names books to come up with the lists.

The last Chantal came to the region in August 2001 and though everyone battened down the hatches much like this time, it never did became a hurricane and dissipated relatively harmlessly, indirectly causing no more than two deaths in Trinidad and dropping light to moderate rainfall across its path.

Would that be the case this time round too.

Jack Kerouac

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life”
– Jack Kerouac