Affirmative Action for Hurricanes?

An African-American friend phoned Chatterbox this afternoon to inquire whether Tropical Storm Chantal would be America’s first black hurricane. According to the latest advisory from the National Weather Service, Chantal is “racing westward” toward Barbados. It was upgraded from a tropical depression earlier today and may by tomorrow become the season’s first Atlantic hurricane. But what captured the attention of Chatterbox’s friend was Chantal’s unusual name. According to the National Hurricane Center, hurricane names (which have been coed since the late 1970s) “have an international flavor because hurricanes affect many nations.” That explains why we’ve had Edouard and Paloma and Wilfred and Otto and can look forward to Olga and Marco and Odette and Tomas. (The governing body is the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization, which explains the hurricane-naming process here.) But what nationality is “Chantal”? Chatterbox felt certain that the WMO had grown tired of playing international identity politics and decided to explore the multicultural possibilities to be found within the borders of the United States. If, in the bargain, it could give Pat Buchanan a severe case of indigestion, so much the better.

But the hypothesis proved incorrect. The name is French. Here, for example, is a Web site for a French-Canadian photographer, male, named Chantal Julien. And here is a Web site for a French-Canadian “jeweler enthralled by knives,” female, named Chantal Gilbert. Hurricane Chantal would no more be America’s first black hurricane than was Bill Clinton America’s first black president.

Still, the question remains: D’ou vient”Chantal”? Chatterbox rang up Frank Lepore, a spokesman at the National Hurricane Center. He explained that alphabetical lists of hurricane names get rotated every six years, but that the names of the deadliest ones get retired. Chantal was used in 1995, 1989, and 1983. In 1977, the “C” hurricane was Clara. Puzzlingly, though, Clara never made landfall, so it’s a mystery why the name was retired and replaced with Chantal.

[Update, 6:10 p.m.: Chantal has been downgraded to a “tropical wave.” So, in addition to not being black, it’s not going to be a hurricane.]

[Update, Aug. 17, 8 p.m.: Now it’s speeding up and “could become a hurricane.”]