Hurricane season officially began this month, and runs through the end of November.
But we have been lucky here in Southern Maryland lately with regard to tropical storms, and here’s to that good fortune continuing. The hurricane research team at Colorado State University is forecasting 13 named storms for the 2019 season, so we’ll see what happens.
The World Meteorological Association recently pushed out its list of names for the year (the geographical range also includes the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico), in its usual girl-boy-girl-boy pattern. The WMA has allowed for up to 21 named storms in a given year, using every letter of the alphabet except Q, U, X, Y and Z.
So what’s in a name anyway? Here’s an interesting theory: People are less likely to fear an oncoming storm with a feminine name than a masculine one, a study for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests. And that’s despite one very important conclusion by the researchers. They concluded that “hurricanes with feminine names turn out to be deadlier in the United States than their more macho-sounding counterparts, probably because their monikers make people underestimate their danger.”
Consider Katrina and Sandy, the two deadliest storms to make landfall in the United States since 1979, when male names joined the rotation.
Maybe the big difference is not the size of the storm, but how people react to it, PNAS study co-author Kiju Jung said. Jung is a doctoral student at the University of Illinois. The study’s other author was Sharon Shavitt, a professor of marketing. No experts in meteorology or disaster science were involved. So it’s more sociological than meteorological, but interesting nonetheless.
More than 1,000 test subjects said, for example, they were more likely to flee an oncoming storm named Danny than one named Kate. “People are looking for meaning in any information they receive. The name of the storm is providing people with irrelevant information that they actually use,” Shavitt said.
In examining death rates, the researchers used a scale that ranked names in terms of masculinity and femininity. They found that since 1950, in general, the deadlier storms had more feminine names. But of course, it’s important to point out that from 1953 (when storms were first named) to 1978, only female names were used, so male-named storms are still catching up.
Among the most memorable hurricanes with feminine names were Hazel (1954), Camille (1969), Agnes (1972) and Isabel (2003). Older readers of The Enterprise may remember Agnes as the tropical storm that deluged Maryland and Isabel as the one that really turned the lights out. “Isabel was the worst hurricane to affect the Chesapeake Bay region since 1933,” the National Hurricane Center says.
That storm came ashore on Sept. 18, 2003, in North Carolina. With tropical storm force, it caused tidal surges of more than 8 feet and high winds in Maryland and surrounding states. It was blamed for 17 deaths and more than $3 billion in damages, according to the NHC. The winds toppled trees and cut power to more than 4 million customers. Many were blacked out for days.
If the PNAS study results are valid, it could be argued residents would have prepared better for that storm if it had carried a masculine name.
But Susan Cutter, director of the University of South Carolina’s Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute, dismissed the idea that female-named storms are deadlier. She considered the results simply coincidental.
So we’ll see. Storms with female names this year include Andrea, Chantal, Erin, Gabrielle, Imelda, Karen, Melissa, Olga, Rebekah, Tanya and Wendy. Storms with male names include Barry, Dorian, Ferdinand, Humberto, Jerry, Lorenzo, Nestor, Pablo, Sebastien and Van.
Here’s hoping we don’t get anywhere near exhausting that list.