Killer blow

As people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic mourn their dead, and thousands of Americans return to their boarded-up and broken homes, another 100mph storm is probably brewing far out at sea.

Officially, the Atlantic-Caribbean hurricane season lasts from June 1 to November 30, but the season is at its most productive - and destructive - at the moment, between mid-September and mid-October. Hurricanes are born when clouds of moisture formed by the evaporation of warm sea water are whipped into a vortex by stormy winds.

Meteorologists knew this would be a bad year for hurricanes because of the climatalogical phenomenon known as La Nina - El Nino's little sister - which meant weak winds at altitude in the tropical Atlantic allowed storms to build up. Once formed, the storm system travels across water at speeds of up to 50 miles an hour - but starts to fade and die when it hits dry land.

The wind circulating round the vortex has to exceed 74 miles an hour for the system to be classed as a hurricane - and live up to its name, given by the American National Weather Service. The names run alphabetically, alternating between male and female, and each series is reused every six years.

Some of them - like Charley, a tropical storm which blew out over southern Texas earlier this year - are fairly anonymous. But Hurricane Georges, which killed hundreds as it swept through the Caribbean late last month and which caused millions of dollars worth of damage in the southern United States, has been notorious.

After Georges come Hermione, Ivan, Jeanne, Karl and Lisa. Less likely to trouble the forecasters and headline writers - there are seldom more than a dozen hurricanes a year - are Mitch, Nicole, Otto, Paula, Richard, Shary, Tomas and Virginie. As for Walter, last in line and making up the numbers, this might be his only mention.

HARVEY McGAVIN

Turn to page 34 for Ted Wragg's Teaching Tips on the Big Picture

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