A storm by any other name ...
Researchers have found that hurricanes named after women are more deadly than ones named after men. And they don’t blame Mother Nature.
No, it seems that people tend to evacuate more readily in the face of a manly storm, and stay put for a feminine squall, according to a study of 90 years of hurricane history at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaigne. The scientists conclude that changing the name of a hypothetical Cat 5 from “Charlie” to “Eloise” would cause the death toll to triple, according to a report they wrote for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Talk about gender bias.
My generation remembers when all hurricanes were named after women – just as ships still are. Betsy wreaked havoc in an era when no one attached much significance to the femininity of the moniker. I suppose Betsy sounds more robust than, say, Angelica, but here in New Orleans, we measure a storm – or a person -- by more than its name. I can recall, as a girl, watching the sweet-sounding Camille blow through south Louisiana and bend pine trees double, until their tips touched the ground.
Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac. Americans tend to perceive 'male' storms as more powerful. Really?
My own hurricane gender bias runs the other way. Somehow I just knew that the very first storm named after a man – it turned out to be Hurricane Bob in July of 1979 – would be a wimp. And it was. It blew through town with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph, hardly enough to be considered a real storm. Same with Isaac two years ago; wags posted sightings of such “storm damage” as an overturned lawn chair and sidewalk puddle.
What male could plow the same path as such weather Valkyries as Audrey in 1957 (145 mph, 416 deaths) or the aforementioned Camille in 1969 (256 deaths)? Not to mention the storm queen of them all, Ms. Katrina.
I suppose such reflections might tempt fate, potentially aligning the planets in a way that will bring not another Katrina, but a Kevin. The first named storm of the 2014 season, which started last Sunday, is Arthur, which conjures images of knights and conquerors. I don’t think a Hurricane Arthur would necessarily be chivalrous.
The first female name up, Bertha, sounds equally threatening to me. I can’t imagine a ladylike Bertha. Big Bertha, after all, was the nickname of a super-heavy howitzer invented just before World War I.
I wonder, too, what happens to evacuation in the face of a gender-bending storm? If there are enough named storms this year, we’ll see a Hurricane Rene. Male or female? Here’s a clue: It will arrive between Paulette and Sally.
Honestly, if we’re going to anthropomorphize storms, I find this year’s names intrinsically frightening – or not – with little attention given to their sex. A Dolly or Fay can’t really wreak havoc in my mind, any more than an Edouard or Gonzalo. I might, however, flee in the face of a Hanna or Omar.
Hurricane names wield enough power that perhaps they shouldn’t be left in the hands of the World Meterological Association. We could do a far better job here in New Orleans.
Consider a Hurricane Melpomene, pronounced the New Orleans way. Fearsome, no? Or Jackson, after Andrew, the general who in pre-presidential days led the charge against the British in the Battle of New Orleans.
Names do have power. And hurricane names carry their power down through the ages. I confess that I still flinch if I spot, say, a waitress's nametag that reads Katrina.
Too bad that Americans still, even subconsciously, measure power based on gender. Here in New Orleans we know better.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]