Researchers: Female-Named Hurricanes Are Twice as Deadly

Monday, 02 Jun 2014 06:50 PM

By Cathy Burke

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Female-named hurricanes are the real lady killers, a new study concludes.

Researchers at the University of Illinois and Arizona State University, looking at hurricane death rates from 1950 to 2012, found that of the 47 most damaging hurricanes, those named after men had an average of 23 deaths while those named after women had an average 45 of deaths, The Washington Post reported.

Atlantic hurricane season started Sunday.

The researchers found a female-named storm isn't as intimidating as a male one.

"Feminine-named hurricanes (vs. masculine-named hurricanes) cause significantly more deaths, apparently because they lead to lower perceived risk and consequently less preparedness," the researchers said. The study was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Naming storms "taps into well-developed and widely held gender stereotypes, with potentially deadly consequences."

"Feminine-named hurricanes (vs. masculine-named hurricanes) cause significantly more deaths, apparently because they lead to lower perceived risk and consequently less preparedness," the study finds.

The study excluded hurricanes Katrina and Audrey, according to The Post.

"People imagining a 'female' hurricane were not as willing to seek shelter," study co-author Sharon Shavitt, a professor of marketing at Illinois, told The Post.

"The stereotypes that underlie these judgments are subtle and not necessarily hostile toward women — they may involve viewing women as warmer and less aggressive than men."

The striking findings was even more pronounced comparing "strongly masculine names" versus "strongly female" names.

"[Our] model suggests that changing a severe hurricane’s name from Charley … to Eloise … could nearly triple its death toll," the study finds.

The researchers tested their hypothesis in questionnaires as well — and found the same sexism.

"In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave," Shavitt told USA Today.

"This makes a female-named hurricane, especially one with a very feminine name such as Belle or Cindy, seem gentler and less violent."

The study abstract urged policymakers to take note.

"… [T]hese findings suggest the value of considering a new system for hurricane naming to reduce the influence of biases on hurricane risk assessments and to motivate optimal preparedness," it noted.

But the findings kicked off a storm of controversy.

Hugh Gladwin of Florida International University told USA Today he found the study "very problematic and misleading," and Jeff Lazo at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., told the newspaper "any finding with respect to naming and fatalities could be a statistical fluke."

"A lot of factors influence decisions [about hurricanes], including socio-demographics, vulnerability, personal and family ability to respond, cultural aspects, prior experience … quality and sources of information, time of day of landfall...," he said.

Marshall Shepherd, past president of the American Meteorological Society, told The Post the study is important.

"I am not ready to change the naming system based on one study, but it may be one more indicator that thinking exclusively about physical science is not enough in 2014 and beyond to save lives," he said.

The National Hurricane Center declined to comment to The Post about the study, but said people ought to pay attention to the hazards of storms no matter what they're named.

"Whether the name is Sam or Samantha, the deadly impacts of the hurricane — wind, storm surge and inland flooding — must be taken seriously by everyone in the path of the storm in order to protect lives,” spokesman Dennis Feltgen told The Post. "This includes heeding evacuation orders."

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