- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2014

Don’t call the wind “Mariah.”

A new study suggests that people have gender-biased views of the names given to the nation’s hurricanes, and are more likely to fear — and run for cover from — a “Hurricane Ivan” than from, say, a “Hurricane Katrina.”

But underestimating a major tropical storm just because it is named for a woman could be a deadly mistake.

PHOTOS: The power of hurricanes

“The more feminine the name of a severe hurricane, the more deaths it causes,” University of Illinois business professor Sharon Shavitt and her colleagues said in a study released Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, just in time for the June 1 start of hurricane season.

Citing federal data tracking 92 Atlantic hurricanes that made landfall from 1950 through 2012, the behavioral scientists found that, in cases where the storms caused high damage, “the masculinity-feminity of a hurricane’s name predicted its death toll.”

National Guard trucks haul residents through floodwaters to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina hit  in New Orleans, Tuesday, Aug. 30,  2005. Officials called for a mandatory evacuation of the city, but many residents remained in the city. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
National Guard trucks haul residents through floodwaters to the Superdome after Hurricane ... more >

Storms with strongly masculine names such as Ivan and Charley were associated with 20 or fewer deaths, but storms with feminine hurricane names were associated with death tolls reaching into the 50s.

To further test their hypothesis, the researchers conducted six experiments to determine whether people associated female-named storms with weakness and passivity and male storms with aggression and strength.

They found that people did lowball the dangers of female-named storms, and that could lead “to less motivation, in terms of preparedness,” Ms. Shavitt said.

In a test with 346 people, hurricanes named Arthur, Cristobal and Omar were deemed to be more intense and risky than storms named Dolly, Fay and Laura.

In another test, people said they would be more likely to evacuate from storms named Christopher or Danny than they would for Christina or Kate.

Policymakers and the public should be aware that this kind of “implicit gender bias” is taking place, Ms. Shavitt said.

“When they name storms, that’s an effort to be clear and memorable in the information that’s being given out — it’s a lot easier to remember Hurricane Fay than it is to remember Hurricane Longitude-This-and-Latitude-That,” said Ms. Shavitt. “But we felt that if people might be dying as a possible result of the name choices — which is surely something no one would have thought about — that certainly should be looked at,” she said.

Hurricane scientists aren’t necessarily blown away by the study’s premise.

“I’m dubious of any conclusions you can draw from the hurricane record because there are so many moving parts,” said Bryan Norcross, senior hurricane specialist at The Weather Channel in Atlanta.

He said variables such as timing, local media and communications capacity could skew the results.

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