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Hurricanes: What’s in a Name?

by Berkeley Wellness  

Beware of Andrea, Beth, and Christina—when it comes to hurricanes, that is. They are just as ferocious as Andrew, Bert, and Christopher, though people tend to perceive female-named storms as less of a threat, according to a recent eye-opening study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And this can have deadly consequences.

The key to staying safe is to be prepared (and evacuate when necessary), no matter what name the hurricane goes by.

The researchers reviewed data on fatalities caused by the 92 hurricanes that hit the U.S. between 1950 and 2012 (excluding the unusually deadly Katrina in 2005 and Audrey in 1957). For storms of low intensity, the name didn’t matter, but for stronger ones, those with more feminine names were deadlier. According to their model, the researchers calculated that changing the masculine name of a severe hurricane to a more feminine one could almost triple the death toll.

A series of experiments further confirmed that female storms are not taken as seriously as their male counterparts and “thus motivate less preparedness.” In one, people predicted that hurricanes with names like Kyle and Marco would be more intense than those with names like Dolly and Hanna. In another, people were presented with the scenario of a hurricane—Victor or Victoria—bearing down on them; those facing the “threat” of Victor reported greater intention to follow evacuation orders.

You may remember that hurricanes were once assigned all female names—to reflect the supposed “unpredictability” of women. That practice ended in the late 1970s when it was finally recognized as sexist, and replaced with the current system of alternating male and female names.

Still, the results of this new study are not that surprising, since gender stereotypes persist widely, with men typically expected to be strong and aggressive and women weak and passive. In fact, the researchers called the phenomenon of underestimating the power of female-named hurricanes “a hazardous form of implicit sexism.” And women in the study were just as likely as men to buy into this view, as were those who didn’t endorse gender-trait beliefs, as measured in some of the experiments.

Perhaps it’s time to switch to unisex names for hurricanes—like Ariel, Brett, Cassidy, Dylan, Randy, and Terry. Or as one radio show host quipped, at least give female hurricanes foreboding nicknames, like “Tiffany—the Devourer of Worlds.”