The nation’s coasts might be a safer if that first hurricane of the 2014 were to bear the name “Atilla” rather than Andrea, if we can believe a study by a team of researchers that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
We may well be guilty of gender-based resistance, but we were at least as surprised by the attendant media attention as we were by the findings that people are more likely to take a hurricane seriously if it has a male name.
“Although using human names for hurricanes has been thought by meteorologists to enhance the clarity … of storm information,” it stated, “this practice taps into well-developed and widely held gender stereotypes.”
That said, the very first sentence of the study, whose lead author, Kiju Jung is a doctoral candidate in marketing at the University of Illinois, gave us pause.
To wit: “Estimates suggest that hurricanes kill more than 200 people in the United States annually.”
Hurricane fatalities actually have been on the decline.
A warmer world may well have an enhancing effect on storms, but since the horrors of Katrina and Wilma in 2005 – excluded from this study as outlier – not a single major hurricane has made U.S. landfall. Advances in warnings and monitoring have cut into storm-surge fatalities.
We also were puzzled that the study looked at the last six decades, given that the male-female system of naming didn’t go into effect until 1979. The World Meteorological Organization does the naming.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration figures, other than Katrina only five hurricanes had death tolls of 25 or more, and three of those were named for males – Floyd, 1999; Alberto, 1994, and Andrew, 1992.
The females were Allison, 2001, and Fran, 1996, although, in fairness, Fran could be a source of gender ambiguity.
The study’s findings were based on surveys of University of Illinois students and other paid volunteers that probed their responses to male and female names. The respondents indicated they would view a storm named “Alexander” more dangerous than one named “Alexandra.”
But we would note that despite its decidedly feminine name, Katrina resulted in at least 1.5 million evacuations, and perhaps double that for Rita.
From our own experience, we can say that if you ever have the misfortune to be in Florida or North Carolina when a hurricane is approaching, trust us, you’ll know all about it, and if it’s big enough and bad enough you won’t care whether the name is masculine, feminine, or neuter.
As Dennis Feltgen at the National Hurricane Center said in his statement, "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. … This includes heeding evacuation orders."
Roger Pielke Jr. at the University of Colorado, an expert on disaster and social policy, opined that the study does serve one purpose in that it showed that “peer review is not infallible.”