Hurricane Victoria more deadly than Hurricane Victor?

Hurricane Inez swamps Miami in 1966.
Hurricane Inez swamps Miami in 1966.

Credit: Keystone-France

Credit: Keystone-France

More people are killed by hurricanes with female names than with male names, a study released today reports, and guess why: gender bias makes us think female-named storms are not as dangerous as male-named storms.

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of Illinois and Arizona State University conclude that storms tend to become more deadly as their names sound more feminine. In sum, they report that storms named for females killed twice as many people as those named for males: an average of 47 for storms named Camille or Inez or other women's names vs. 23 for storms named Ernesto or Ike or something else macho-sounding.

“Our model suggests that changing a severe hurricane’s name from Charley to Eloise could nearly triple its death toll,” the study says.

The authors of the study are not meteorologists or hurricane experts but social scientists, and some experts dismissed the findings. Susan Cutter, director of the University of South Carolina’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute, told the Associated Press that the study results are just coincidence and nothing more.

But the AP also talked to Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT, who said the work – more social science than physical science – may well have merit. He also joked, the AP said, that perhaps storm namers should start using really scary appellations like Jack the Ripper or King Kong.

The study notes, “The anticipated severity of a hurricane with a masculine name (Victor) will be greater than that of a hurricane with a feminine name (Victoria). This expectation, in turn, will affect the protective actions that people take.”

The authors created a “masculinity/femininity index” to judge the relative danger of hurricanes and claimed that the more masculine a hurricane’s name sounded, the more seriously people took the risk. The opposite was true for the most feminine-sounding storms. The index is scaled one to 11, with one being “very masculine” and 11 being “very feminine.”

It predicts a death toll of 10.8 from a powerful hurricane with the most masculine-sounding name, but a toll of 58.7 from a hurricane of roughly the same intensity but with the most feminine-sounding name.