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Can Changing the Name and Gender of a Hurricane Increase Its Death Toll?

A recent article from the National Geographic website looked at some research that indicates that female hurricanes kill more people than male hurricanes. While we know that male and female hurricane names are routinely alternated, and the name of a storm certainly can’t predict its intensity, some researchers have asserted that there is statistical evidence that shows that female hurricanes, at least historically, have taken more lives than male hurricanes.

Gender Bias and Preparation for Severe Storms

Kiju Jung, with the University of Illinois at Urbana, was the first to see the link between the gender of hurricane names and their death tolls. Looking at data from just under a hundred hurricanes occurring between 1950 and 2012 in the U.S., Jung found that “changing a severe hurricane’s name from Charley to Eloise could nearly triple its death toll.”

Jung attributed this difference to an implicit gender bias, claiming that people may unknowingly associate male names with aggression and female names with passivity. In the course of later experiments, his researchers concluded that people were more likely to:

  • Assume a hurricane with a masculine name would be more severe than a storm with a feminine name
  • Evacuate before a hurricane with a male name
  • Take more risks when preparing for a hurricane with a feminine name

Although this research gestures at a potential need to look at the way hurricanes are named and presented, critics have pointed out that the study had limitations, and they argue that the true usefulness of this knowledge is still questionable.

Treating All Hurricanes Equally

Although more research is needed before this study can have any real impact on policymaking, there is one big takeaway for municipalities, business owners, and homeowners in hurricane-vulnerable areas. Ultimately, whether or not gender bias plays a role in how we react to severe weather, it’s important to take steps to protect yourself by treating all hurricanes equally and always taking steps to prepare for a hurricane as though it will become severe. By thinking ahead, preparing for potential emergencies, and creating a bullet-proof hurricane response plan, you can help ensure that a severe storm doesn’t take you by surprise—regardless of its gender.  

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Read the article from National Geographic here.

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