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Hurricane facts & figures

From these tiny islands
come mighty storms

By CHUCK MURPHY, Times staff writer
©St. Petersburg Times, published Aug. 26, 1995

Sick and tired of worrying about tropical weather? Place the blame where it belongs:

Fogo.

The big volcano on one of the Cape Verde islands erupted back in April. That was good for Cape Verde, bad for Florida.

"There's a traditional belief that every time the volcano erupts we get rain in Cape Verde," said resident Antero Veiga.

And when it rains in Cape Verde, it can pour 3,700 miles away in Florida. (Cape Verde Islands at a glance)

Felix, Humberto, Iris -- all formed within spitting distance of the Cape Verde archipelago this summer, continuing the islands' reputation as the birthplace of Atlantic hurricanes. Though Felix spun away and Humberto is heading north, Iris is moving toward the United States -- although it no longer is at hurricane strength. And there's a large tropical wave near Cape Verde, about 300 miles west of the African continent.

"Those clouds brought us our first rain of the year," Veiga, a family planner, said in a phone interview this week from Praia, Cape Verde's capital. "We've had other small showers, but it rained all night for the first time last night. It is raining right now."

Look out Florida.

Atlantic tropical storms often have their roots in Africa. Rainfall totals in West Africa are one of the primary factors used in predicting the potential for a busy hurricane season in this part of the world.

After years of drought, West Africa has had a lot of rain lately. That produces the moisture needed to create thunderstorms. As those storms move off the African coast, near Cape Verde, they often develop tropical characteristics. A little counter-clockwise circulation later, they are tropical storms and hurricanes headed toward Florida.

"The Atlantic Ocean as a whole is the warmest we've seen it in 10 years," said state meteorologist Mike Rucker. "That certainly contributes in combination with the rainfall in the West African Sahel."

But, until Wednesday night, the storms deposited little rain directly on Cape Verde. Hence, contrary to the republic's name (Verde means green in Spanish), the chain of islands is actually quite drab.

"It's not green at all," said Edna Barreto, a diplomat in Cape Verde's embassy in Washington, D.C. "At this time, the islands are maybe a little green, but it's mostly brown."

The republic, which would just about fit inside Rhode Island, is made up of 10 major islands. Fogo, on one of the southernmost, is about 9,300 feet tall and is the only active volcano in the chain. Its eruption in April was its first since 1951. About 5,000 people had to flee their homes on the island. There were few casualties.

"We have been in a drought for 20 years, and many people believe the volcano's eruption will end it," said Veiga, who works for a U.S. aid agency in the embassy. "The older people say that after the last eruption, a serious drought ended."

Veiga speaks nearly flawless English in addition to Portuguese and the native Criuolo.

"I went to the University of Arizona. A lot of people from here study in Arizona because it is most like our country," he said.

But not as hot. The average high in August is 84 degrees with an average low of 76. In December, there's not much change, with an average high of 79 and low of 71.

Rain has been sparse in Cape Verde for the past 25 years. Over that time, an average of 10.2 inches has fallen annually.

"It is obviously difficult to grow much with that little rain," Veiga said. Although bananas and papayas are grown locally, the country imports about 95 percent of its food. Unemployment hovers around 25 percent.

There are beaches and fishing. But of the country's 423,000 residents, those who have the money choose to vacation in the United States and European countries.

It has been 20 years since Cape Verde gained its independence from Portugal, but free elections were held for the first time in 1991. The government recently has embarked on a program to privatize a number of government functions in the hope that the country's meager production would increase.

If only it could be paid for exporting bad weather.

"Well remember, your hurricanes are only forming nearby," Veiga said. "We do not make them over Cape Verde."

(See related information: "A hurricane in the making")

* * *

Cape Verde Islands at a glance

Population: 423,000
Ethnic groups: 71% Creole (mixed), 28% African, 1% European
Language: Portuguese
Religion: Roman Catholic, fused with local beliefs
Geography: 15 islands, 1,557 square miles (slightly larger than Rhode Island)
Topography: Volcanic. Landscape is stark, with vegetation in interior valleys.
Capital: Praia (pop. 61,000)
Government: Republic
Chief crops: Bananas, coffee, beets, corn, beans
Vehicles: 10,000
Radios: 1 per 6.9 persons
Phones: 1 per 38 persons
Life expectancy: 61 male, 65 female
Literacy: 37%


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