Live footage shows the power of Hurricane Irma as it destroys the Maho Beach Cam in St Maarten. Video courtesy of PTZtv. PTZtv
Live footage shows the power of Hurricane Irma as it destroys the Maho Beach Cam in St Maarten. Video courtesy of PTZtv. PTZtv

Nation & World

Female-named hurricanes such as Irma are deadlier. Is sexism the reason?

By Max Londberg

jlondberg@kcstar.com

September 05, 2017 10:56 AM

UPDATED September 06, 2017 01:40 PM

As Irma storms toward the Caribbean and Florida, now is an appropriate time to revisit a study on how sexism kills during hurricanes.

Female-named hurricanes are far deadlier than male-named ones, according to the 2014 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

How is that possible? Sexism, and more specifically the stereotypical perceptions often held on the basis of gender, according to the study.

“These experiments show that gender-congruent perceptions of intensity and strength are responsible for male-named hurricanes being perceived as riskier and more intense than female-named hurricanes,” the authors wrote.

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Their findings — based on data from 94 hurricanes that made landfall in the U.S. from 1950 to 2012 — were telling. While hurricanes with masculine names caused an average of 15.15 deaths, those with female names caused 41.84 deaths. (Data from Hurricane Katrina and Audrey were removed as outliers.)

The authors also conducted lab experiments in which they confirmed that a storm with a masculine name markedly increased people’s perceptions of its intensity and danger. Female-named hurricanes were perceived as weaker.

In addition, participants were less likely to follow a voluntary evacuation order if a hurricane had a female name.

These stereotypical perceptions held true for all genders of the study participants.

“These findings have important implications for hurricane preparedness and public safety,” the authors wrote.

Even the early naming mechanism for hurricanes was sexist; hurricanes were once only given female names, “a practice that meteorologists of a different era considered appropriate due to such characteristics of hurricanes as unpredictability,” the authors wrote, citing the “Encyclopedia of Hurricanes, Typhoons, and Cyclones.”

Hurricane Irma has strengthened to a Category 5 storm, the highest possible designation on the Saffir–Simpson hurricane wind scale.

Irma’s winds have eclipsed 155 knots, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “This makes Irma the strongest hurricane in the Atlantic basin outside of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico in the (National Hurricane Center) records,” the administration wrote.

Irma could affect Florida this weekend and will pass near or over Caribbean islands later this week.

Warnings are in effect for the Leeward Islands, and Irma is also expected to affect Puerto Rico and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands on Wednesday.

“This hurricane has the potential to be a major event for the East Coast,” Evan Myers, chief operating officer of AccuWeather, said in a statement. “It also has the potential to significantly strain FEMA and other governmental resources occurring so quickly on the heels of (Hurricane) Harvey.”

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Hurricane Hunters make first pass through Irma

A WP-3D Orion aircraft made the first hurricane hunter pass through Hurricane Irma on Sunday, September 3, getting a first hand look at the storm as it edges toward the Caribbean.

Credit: Twitter/Lt Rob Mitchell NOAA via Storyful

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @MaxLondberg