Sifelani Tsiko Senior Writer
All eyes are on Cyclone Idai which tore through parts of Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi killing more than 200 people and displacing more than 1,5 million people nearly two decades after another cyclone ripped through the region with devastating force.
The latest tropical storm has destroyed homes, crops, bridges and roads bringing untold hardships to the affected communities.
The tropical storm has cut electricity exports to South Africa causing blackouts in Africa’s biggest economy.
In the three affected countries, the tropical storm has cut vital road links and electricity supply lines, shaking the economies of these countries.
Tropical Cyclone Idai made a landfall on Thursday last week in the port city of Beira, which is the lifeline to fuel and other major imports for landlocked Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia and the DRC.
More than 100 people have been reported missing after heavy rains and violent winds hit the three countries.
The death toll in the three countries is currently being updated and the full scale of the tragedy will only become clearer as the storm subsides.
The Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre (RSMC) in the Reunion and Mauritius reported that when the storm made landfall in Mozambique last Thursday it had wind gusts of about 160 kilometres per hour which caused ocean waves of up to nine metres high.
Torrential rains have continued to batter the region even though meteorological experts say they are weakening in intensity.
The whole region is abuzz about Cyclone Idai. Many weather watchers have been fascinated by how the storm actually got its name.
How do they choose the names? How did they come to choose this one which sounds very Zimbabwean?
These are some of the questions on the lips of many people.
Bindura University of Science Education (BUSE) climate scientist Professor Desmond Manatsa told The Herald that the unique name assigned to a particular cyclone or storm is done according to a pre-defined alphabetical list.
“Experts from Met offices in the cyclone region, south-west Indian ocean which includes Zimbabwe, met and suggested the names. The names are then put in an alphabetical order for that year,” he says.
“As the cyclones develop, they are given these names, beginning with those on top of the alphabet. Names are only valid for the current season, in this case — 2018- 2019 tropical storm season of the world’s oceans. But when the cyclone season ends, all names which have not been used are discarded. They will start a new list the following season.”
Cyclone Idai, he says, bears a Shona language (Zimbabwean) name. Roughly translated, it means to love.
In the 2016-2017 tropical storm season, the most prominent cyclone name was Dineo which is a south-west Indian ocean region.
The 2016 -2017 tropical storm had names which included: Abela, Bransby, Carlos, Dineo, Enawo, Fernando, Gabekile, Herold, Irondo, Jeruto, Kundai, Lisebo, Michel, Nousra, Olivier, Pokera, Quincy, Rebaone, Salama, Tristan, Ursula, Violet, Wilson, Xila, Yekela and Zania.
Dineo followed a tropical storm named Carlos, which was the third such system in the ocean region which affected the area east of Madagascar.
The experts usually meet once every three years to give names for the coming three seasons, Prof Manatsa says.
“Every season will have a set of suggested names,” he says. “The names are not made public. The names are held by the Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre (RSMC) in the Reunion and Mauritius met offices. They have the mandate to issue warning alerts and bulletins to the whole Southern African region adjacent to the south-west Indian Ocean.”
Other experts say the naming of tropical cyclones is a recent phenomenon. The process of naming cyclones usually involves several countries in the region and is done under the aegis of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).
For the Indian Ocean region, deliberations for naming cyclones began in 2000 and a formula was agreed upon in 2004.
Tropical cyclones and subtropical cyclones are named by the world’s six Regional Specialised Meteorological Centres mainly to provide ease of communication between forecasters and the general public regarding forecasts, watches and warnings.
The names are intended to reduce confusion in the event of concurrent storms in the same basin, the experts say.
Before the formal start of naming, tropical cyclones were named after places, objects, or saints’ feast days on which they occurred.
Historical records indicate that the credit for the first usage of personal names for weather systems is generally given to the Queensland government meteorologist,` Clement Wragge, who named systems between 1887 and 1907.
This system of naming weather systems, however, fell into disuse for several years after Wragge retired, until it was revived in the latter part of World War II for the Western Pacific.
Formal naming schemes and naming lists have subsequently been introduced and developed for the Eastern, Central, Western and Southern Pacific basins, as well as the Australian region, Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean.
These days, experts now favour the use of short, easily remembered names in written as well as spoken communications to reduce confusion improve the ease of messaging alerts.
Hurricane Katrina, a notorious storm, which occurred in 2005, was the costliest natural disaster and one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States.
Others worldwide include Hurricane Hugo (1989), Irma (2017), Walaka (2018), Typhoon Merenti (2016), Kong-rey (2018), Yutu (2018), Cyclone Eline (2000), Hondo (2007-8) and Edzani (2009-10).
The Cyclone Eline-induced floods in the 1999-2000 season claimed the lives of more than 700 people and left more than 500 000 people homeless and caused over $1 billion of infrastructural damage in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, according to a ReliefWeb report in 2001.
The scale of destruction was of biblical proportions. Throughout the short and intense period in 2000, Cyclone Eline destroyed homes, schools, clinics, dams burst while crops and vital infrastructure were damaged.
Lots of people were killed and as the impact of floods worsened up to two million people were displaced.
And just as it is said in old stories by the elderly, archival material also points at tropical cyclones which have hit Zimbabwe in the past.
One H. Pellat, a former employee of the Met Services, conducted research in the 1970s and compiled a report titled: “Cyclone tracks in the vicinity of the Mozambique Channel”,
In his report, Pellat compiled a list of named cyclones which roared through Zimbabwe since the 1930s.
A cyclone track map in his report indicates that in 1904 a cyclone hit the northern parts of Mozambique but entered Zimbabwe as a depression.
This was perhaps the closest to ever hit the country at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1934, a cyclone came through Chipinge and roared through to the Muzarabani area where it disappeared.
Another one, in 1946 hit northern Mozambique, southern Malawi and Zambia but partially waved through Zimbabwe.
In 1948, southern and eastern parts of the country were also hit by a cyclone which went through to Botswana.
Cyclone Astrid ravaged these areas again in the 1957/ 1958 period and disappeared into South Africa.
Cyclone Colleen in 1959 roared through northern Mozambique, circled over Zimbabwe, Botswana and disappeared near the Caprivi Strip.
In the 1966/67 season, Cyclone Daphne hit southern Mozambique and its effect was felt on the eastern parts of Zimbabwe.
Cyclone Berthe hit northern and central Mozambique in 1969 before recurving over Zimbabwe. It came through the north-eastern part of Zimbabwe and disappeared in the Lowveld.
However, Pellat says it was difficult to specify the intensity of the cyclones and also to give details of the destruction caused by the cyclones. In the 1970s, Cyclone Emily which came from the south across the Limpopo River is said to have destroyed huts, livestock, crops and killed a number of people in the country.
Cyclone Bonita also made headlines in 1996 when it hit the country destroying houses, crops and livestock. Human lives were also lost.
Cyclone Bonita came through the northern Mazowe/Makonde areas and resulted in floods in the Muzarabani area bordering Zambia and Mozambique.
Beyond 1996, the country also experienced more floods.
It experienced cyclone-induced flooding, which included Cyclone Eline (2000), Japhet (2003) and another in 2007.
Torrential rains and floods also killed dozens of people and caused extensive damage to crops and infrastructure between 2007 and 2014 in Zimbabwe before the country and the entire region plunged into one of the worst drought in half a century in the 2015 -2016 cropping season.
Much still remains to be seen if Cyclone Idai can can surpass Cyclone Eline with speeds of 120km per hour, which hit this southern African country and her neighbours in the 1999-2000 period. It was seen as the worst in 50 years.
Flooding currently poses a threat to roughly 21 million people across the world every year, costing the global economy more than $90 billion, according to a 2015 UN report.