Opinion: A gathering storm over hurricane names: Board up the ivory tower

Hurricane names
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, leaving behind widespread flooding.
(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Everyone knows to beware of femme fatales. But I never thought that applied to hurricanes.

In news that may open a whole new front in the battle of the sexes, researchers at the University of Illinois say that more people die in hurricanes with feminine names — think Audrey or, yes, Katrina.

Why? Well, here’s the researchers’ theory:

“Individuals assess their vulnerability to hurricanes and take actions based not only on objective indicators of hurricane severity, but also on the gender of hurricanes. This pattern may emerge because individuals systematically underestimate their vulnerability to hurricanes with more feminine names, avoiding or delaying protective measures.”


In other words, give a storm a girlie name, give men (presumably) more reasons to man-up — and drown?

Or, as USA Today reported:

“ ‘People may be dying as a result of the femininity of a hurricane (name),’ says Sharon Shavitt, a professor of marketing at Illinois and a coauthor of the study, which appears in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

Hmmm. Tell me more, oh wise ones of the ivory tower:


“Researchers examined more than 60 years of death tolls from the 94 hurricanes that hit the USA between 1950 and 2012 and found that hurricanes with a more ‘feminine’ name killed more people than those with male names. Additionally, the scientists put the masculinity and femininity of some storm names on a rating scale.

“The paper claimed that a masculine-named storm would kill about 15 people, but the same strength hurricane with a female name would lead to about 42 deaths.”

Which is all just downright fascinating. Heck, it even may be significant. Then again, I once proved — using various statistical methods that I prefer not to disclose — that I was much smarter than my wife and should therefore pay the bills and balance the checkbook. And that, in fact, the rare overdrafts we experienced were more of a statistical anomaly than proof that I was incapable of paying the bills on time.

She pays the bills now anyway.

Not that I’m the only skeptic. As another ivory tower-type told the website

“ ‘If you had not told me that it was a real paper I would have assumed it was satire,’ said Robert J. Meyer, co-director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania….

“ ‘I have no problem believing the core result that when you put a female name on objects — a gun, a car, an earthquake — there is an implicit tendency among naive subjects to ascribe less aggressive traits to it,’ Meyer said.

“ ‘But to take this, very small, effect observed in a Web study and use it to conclude that there would have been fewer deaths in Katrina had it been named ‘Ken’ is simply ridiculous.”


And he should know. After all, he’s “co-director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center,” and that must mean he knows something about risk management and decisions.

Then again, he may just not think much of the University of Illinois.

(Also, he doesn’t seem to know that we don’t give earthquakes female names, unless he named his daughter “Northridge”; though, to be fair, they don’t have a lot of quakes in Pennsylvania.)

Also, “Ken” to me conjurs up the Ken doll of Ken and Barbie fame, and I wouldn’t be particularly afraid of a hurricane named Ken either. But maybe that’s just me. “Hurricane Sue” might seem benign to most folks too — but not to me, because that was my mother-in-law’s name. Shudder.

Personally, whether you buy this theory or not, here’s my take: I’m old fashioned. Why can’t we just go back to naming all hurricanes after women? It was good enough for Grandma and Grandad’s time; I say, some things just don’t need to keep up with the times.

But please, not Hurricane Sue.


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