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In the eye of the storm

Gercine Carter

In the eye of the storm

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The Barbados Meteorological Service was criticized by some Barbadians this past week after Tropical Storm Chantal, which was predicted to hit the island, veered to the north and had little effect except for some rains and heavily overcast conditions. The island was placedon shutdown as the storm approached and the all-clear was given only after 11 a.m. last Tuesday.
In today’s Big Interview, Senior Reporter Gercine Carter spoke to Hampden Lovell, who has been Acting Director of Meteorological Services for the past three years, about how the Met Office functions and responds to public criticism.
What is your experience as a meteorologist?
Lovell: I have been in meteorology since 1971 and I came through the ranks from an observer to forecaster. I had most of my training at the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology and I did a stint at the National Weather Service
in Washington, where I worked with them for four months. I will tell you that those people in Washington don’t envy us in the Caribbean as tropical meteorologists because it is very difficult when you are forecasting for small islands like this.
For us it only takes a little variation in the weather pattern in a system and that can determine whether Barbados gets three inches of rain or no rain.
Your department has on occasion been heavily criticized by Barbadians for its predictions on storm systems threatening Barbados. What are your challenges and how justified is the criticism?
Lovell: One of our main challenges is getting the public to understand that meteorology is really a growing science and not an exact science and
to understand that if a department like the Barbados Meteorological Services can give you a forecast of a track of a storm to pass less than 50 miles to the north of the island around eight o’clock in the morning and that forecast is on track, my challenge is: why can’t you see the positives? Why complain that you did not get any rain or you did not get any thunderstorms? To me, I think it would be wiser to thank God that nothing has happened.
In last week’s case with the passing of Tropical Storm Chantal, the island braced itself for impact based on the bulletins issued by the Met Office. Barbados was spared a hit by the storm and in the aftermath people are saying that, once again, the Met Office misled them. How do you respond to this?
Lovell: I have been in this business for a very long time and I have discarded that kind of criticism. Sometimes you feel that you cannot win. You forecast correctly, the exact thing happens and you still get licks.Most of the activity in Chantal was in the north-western, the north-eastern and the south-eastern quadrants of the system, hence that band behind the centre that we were watching all the time and which we thought could have impacted Barbados. It is that band that went across St Lucia and Dominica to give them the stormy weather they experienced.
Again, while we were considering giving the all-clear for Chantal, we did some analysis and checked radar imagery. We saw there were some convective cells still to the east in a rain band and there were some thunderstorms in there as well. Along with thunderstorms, we can get wind gusts up to storm force.
Because of this, we took the decision not to issue the all-clear because those storm-force winds were still occurring to the east of Barbados. In speaking with the National Hurricane Centre, they also advised that the hurricane hunter was in fact reporting storm-force winds to the east of Barbados.
I prefer to err on the side of caution. Given the tools that we have and using the equipment we have, the technology we have, if it shows that you will get showers and thunderstorms and wind, then I prefer to give that information to the public. If  it does not come as the forecast says, then I am more comfortable with that than to not inform the public and something comes.
I have a set of staff who are very competent and I admire how they go about their business. I think in the case of Chantal, the Barbados Meteorological Services did an extremely good job.
How are you affected by the criticism?
Lovell: I have learnt to live with it. I think it makes me strongest and it gives me the zeal to be more accurate and to provide a better service.
In predicting storms, I understand Barbados relies on information coming out of the National Hurricane Centre in Miami. What is the relationship between the Met Office and that institution?
Lovell: We work a lot in conjunction with the National Hurricane Centre in Miami. They also take information from our satellite.There is a hurricane committee which involves all the Eastern Caribbean, Cuba, Belize, all those areas, and it is headed by the director of the National Hurricane Service in Miami. Every year we meet and decisions are made as it pertains to tropical cyclones coming across the Atlantic basin.
At that committee decisions are made on how and when to issue tropical storm warnings, watches, for what areas. We even have debate on the names that are used.
Barbados is not only tasked with informing the Barbados public. We have jurisdiction for issuing warnings and watches for St Vincent and Dominica,
so that although a system may have passed us, we have to communicate with the met services there and we decide on the issuance of watches and warnings in conjunction with the National Hurricane Centre. The Miami Met Office will not issue a warning unless they come through us.
If a storm hits Barbados and Barbados is no longer able to communicate, St Lucia or Trinidad would take over responsibility and they would disseminate all the information for Barbados. It is a rigorous and well working operations plan.
Are you satisfied with the level of hurricane preparedness among Barbadians and
their response to hurricane warnings?
Lovell: I have seen some improvement. People are somewhat more prepared and the percentage of people who listen to our warnings and watches
is greater than those who don’t, so I am glad for that. It might be slowly, but we are getting the message out there and I like the fact that they can go on the Web and television and see that these things are nothing to play with.
What advice do you have for Barbadians with regard to hurricane preparedness?
Lovell: I have been saying this from the last hurricane season – treat every wave that comes off the African coast as a potential hurricane or tropical storm. If you do that, then you are on your way to being well prepared. Imagine that it is going to become a storm and make the necessary preparation. It only takes one storm to come across the Atlantic and move through the eastern Caribbean, devastate us and set us back 30 or 40 years.
In all your years at the Met Office, which has been the most difficult weather system with which you have had to deal?
Lovell: Tomas, actually, and that was after I came into the chair, because Tomas intensified so rapidly that it caught us a bit off guard. Tomas was an entity on its own. There are not a lot of storms like Tomas and I think it taught us a lesson.
What lessons did you learn from Tomas?
Lovell: It enforced in me [the fact that] you can take none of these systems for granted. We in the met world in the hurricane belt, the Hurricane Centre and the region, we have been doing very well in actually tracking a system, where it will pass and how far away it will pass. What we have not been able to put and we are getting there. Systems can come and develop more rapidly than you expect and that is the challenge right now.