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Published June 3, 2014 07:49 AM

Hurricanes with female names result in greater death toll

Hurricanes with feminine names are likely to cause nearly three times as many deaths than storms with masculine names after new research found girl names are perceived as less threatening.

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A new University of Illinois study is warning to watch out for hurricanes with benign-sounding names like Dolly, Fay or Hanna because people in the path of these severe storms may take fewer protective measure, leaving them more vulnerable to harm.

Analysis of more than six decades of death rates from US hurricanes shows that severe hurricanes with a more feminine name result in a greater death toll, simply because a storm with a feminine name is seen as less foreboding than one with a more masculine name.

The finding indicates an unfortunate and unintended consequence of the gendered naming of hurricanes, which has important implications for policymakers, meteorologists, the news media and the public regarding hurricane communication and preparedness, the researchers say.

"The problem is that a hurricane's name has nothing to do with its severity," said Kiju Jung, a doctoral student in marketing in the U of I's College of Business and the lead author on the study.

"Names are assigned arbitrarily, based on a predetermined list of alternating male and female names," he said. "If people in the path of a severe storm are judging the risk based on the storm's name, then this is potentially very dangerous."

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined actual hurricane fatalities for all storms that made landfall in the US from 1950-2012, excluding Hurricane Katrina (2005) and Hurricane Audrey (1957) because they were much deadlier than the typical storm.

The authors found that for highly damaging storms, the more feminine the storm's name, the more people it killed. The team's analysis suggests that changing a severe hurricane's name from the masculine "Charley" to the feminine "Eloise" could nearly triple its death toll.

"In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave," said Sharon Shavitt, a professor of marketing at Illinois and a co-author of the report. "This makes a female-named hurricane, especially one with a very feminine name such as Belle or Cindy, seem gentler and less violent."

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