Hurricanes With Female Names Are Deadlier Than Storms With Male Names

Hell hath no fury like a woman storm.

National Journal
Marina Koren
June 2, 2014, 11:02 a.m.

Which storm sounds scar­i­er: Hur­ricane Ar­thur or Hur­ricane Dolly?

If you picked Ar­thur, you may be in trouble. Hur­ricanes with fem­in­ine names are likely to kill sig­ni­fic­antly more people than hur­ricanes with mas­cu­line names, ac­cord­ing to a new study of more than six dec­ades of U.S. storms.

Uni­versity of Illinois re­search­ers tracked the death tolls for every hur­ricane that touched down on U.S. soil between 1950 and 2012 (they left out 1957’s Audrey and 2005’s Kat­rina, be­cause those storms were much dead­li­er than usu­al). They found that the more fem­in­ine the storm’s name, the high­er its death toll. A lot high­er, too: Their ana­lys­is sug­gests that chan­ging a hur­ricane’s name from Char­ley to Eloise could nearly triple the storm’s fatal­it­ies. This ef­fect held for storms be­fore 1979, which were only giv­en fe­male names.

That’s be­cause people per­ceive hur­ricanes’ names like they do people’s names: in the con­text of gender-based ex­pect­a­tions. The more fem­in­ine a storm name sounds, the less severe the pub­lic thinks the storm will be. (For this study, sep­ar­ate par­ti­cipants rated the fem­in­in­ity or mas­culin­ity of names without know­ing they were for storms.) In­deed, when re­search­ers asked people to ima­gine be­ing in the path of hur­ricanes Al­ex­an­dra, Christina, or Vic­tor­ia, they rated the storm as less power­ful and risky than those who were told to ima­gine hur­ricanes Al­ex­an­der, Chris­toph­er, or Vic­tor. 

“In judging the in­tens­ity of a storm, people ap­pear to be ap­ply­ing their be­liefs about how men and wo­men be­have,” ex­plains Shar­on Shavitt, who coau­thored the study. “This makes a fe­male-named hur­ricane, es­pe­cially one with a very fem­in­ine name such as Belle or Cindy, seem gentler and less vi­ol­ent.”

This means that people take few­er pre­cau­tions as these hur­ricanes ap­proach, which leaves them more vul­ner­able once they hit. “People ima­gin­ing a ‘fe­male’ hur­ricane were not as will­ing to seek shel­ter,” Shavitt said.

But hur­ricane names, fem­in­ine or mas­cu­line, are com­pletely ar­bit­rary and have noth­ing to do with sever­ity. The Na­tion­al Hur­ricane Cen­ter ro­tates six al­pha­bet­ic­al lists of names every year, which are chosen by the World Met­eor­o­lo­gic­al Or­gan­iz­a­tion in Geneva through an in­ter­na­tion­al vot­ing com­mit­tee. When storms are es­pe­cially dev­ast­at­ing, like Kat­rina, their names are re­tired from use.

The names of the first few hur­ricanes of the 2014 sea­son, which of­fi­cially began this past week­end, will be Ar­thur, Ber­tha, Cris­to­bal, and Dolly. Don’t dis­count Dolly.

This story has been up­dated.

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