- 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.”

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.

“I bet that the gender aspect of it would fall down on the list of things that were significant motivators,” he said.

For Superstorm Sandy in 2012, timely warnings about storm surge from local officials “would have changed the dynamic much more dramatically than whether [the devastating storm] had been named Fred instead of Sandy,” Mr. Norcross said.

“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. This includes heeding evacuation orders,” said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fraught history

The fraught history of hurricane naming shows many a tempest in a teapot.

In the 1890s, Australian meteorologist Clement Lindley Wragge started naming storms for mythological creatures, historical figures and women. He also occasionally used the names of unpopular politicians so he could link them to “sinister” and “frightening” disturbances on the horizon.

U.S. newspapers wrote headlines such as “Labor Day Hurricane” or “Big Blow” to describe Florida’s monster storms in 1935 and 1926.

Identifying numbers and codes were tried, but that system created confusion when multiple storms churned in the oceans.

The U.S. Navy’s phoenetic radio alphabet of Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, etc., was used for a time. When 1950s Hurricane Easy turned out to be anything but, the National Hurricane Center started to use common female names.

Because names are recycled, there have been 10 Hurricane Arlenes since 1959. Another has been penciled in for 2017.

This system outraged feminists. Roxcy Bolton of Florida led a classic 1960s protest against the National Hurricane Center’s presumption that natural disasters were presumed to be female. She even promoted Wragge’s idea that politicians’ names be used because they “delight in having things named after them,” according to a 2011 article by the History Channel.

Complaints also poured in about all the English-sounding names.

By 1979, authorities started an alternating list of male and female names, including some that were Spanish and French, for Atlantic Basin storms. Today, a committee at the World Meteorological Organization assigns six sets of 21 names that, unless retired, cycle through the years.

A spokeswoman for the organization said Monday that the agency “has no plans to re-examine hurricane-naming conventions.”

The names are internationally accepted, function well on the whole and are “short, nonpolitical, culturally appropriate and easy to remember,” said World Meteorological Organization media officer Clare Nullis. Male and female names have alternated since it was decided, “in the interests of equality,” to introduce men’s names to the mix, she said.

Noting decades of female-named storms, Ms. Shavitt said, she and her colleagues assessed the degrees of femininity in a name: When a storm with a “low-femininity” name such as Fern is compared with one with a highly feminine name such as Cindy, “we would still expect to see differences, and we do,” she said.

Names of storms with high death tolls, such as Hurricanes Audrey (1957) and Katrina (2005), were dropped from the study as outliers.

Hurricane Sandy of 2012 was included, though.

Multiple factors contributed to Sandy’s 285 deaths, Ms. Shavitt said, but people in its path had days of warnings about a “superstorm.” Sandy is a highly feminine name: It ranked 9 on a scale of 11 on one metric, she said.

So “what our data suggest, in the aggregate, is that people would be less likely to be worried” about a storm named Sandy than one named Sam.