In the hours before Superstorm Sandy hit my neighborhood on the Brooklyn waterfront, all I could think about was Olivia Newton John strutting her stuff in a pair of tight black leather pants at a pop-up carnival on the grounds of Rydel High School. Fourteen months prior, as I was packing an overnight bag and battening down the hatches in my apartment, I had the theme from “Fame” stuck in my head.

Did I take these lady-canes seriously despite the decidedly non-threatening pop culture associations I had made with storms? Sure, I did. Would I have reacted differently if Sandy was Salvatore and Irene was Igor? Probably not.

However, according to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, when a major hurricane takes on a feminine identity it is likely to be deadlier than a storm that winds up with a male identifier chosen by the World Meteorological Organization. The study zeroes in on the death tolls associated with 94 named Atlantic hurricanes that have hit the United States, and the United States only, from 1950 to 2012.

The reason that female-named storms statistically claim more lives according to the study’s authors?

It all boils down to gender bias. That is, people just don’t respect storms bestowed with female names, failing to heed warnings and risking their lives because if they’ve gone and named this Cindy, how bad can it really be? Heck, my mom’s name is Cindy and she wouldn't hurt a fly.

The study, which involved follow-up experiments in addition to an in-depth analysis of hurricane death rates, found that if the name of a severe tropical cyclone was switched from "Charley" to "Eloise," the resulting fatalities would be tripled.

"In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave. This makes a female-named hurricane, especially one with a very feminine name such as Belle or Cindy, seem gentler and less violent,” says Sharon Shavitt, a co-author of the study and a marketing professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “People may be dying as a result of the femininity of a hurricane (name).”

Of course, hurricanes are not at all given their names based on anticipated severity. The alternating male-female hurricane naming system is decided by the WMO years several in advance, with new names being introduced and retired with each season. It’s purely coincidental that some of the most devastating storms to make landfill in recent years — Katrina, Irene, Sandy — have sported feminine monikers. In fact, from the early 1950s through 1979 when Bob, the first official “boy” hurricane, wreaked havoc on New England, all Atlantic hurricanes were given female names. This hard-to-ignore fact was taken into consideration by the study’s authors.

Hurricane Katrina, responsible for 1,833 deaths in 2005, and Hurricane Audrey, a storm that claimed 416 lives when it struck the South Central U.S. in June 1957, were excluded as they are statistical outliers that would skew the study. Sandy, although downgraded from a hurricane by the time it reached the Northeast, was included.

"We were not comparing apples and oranges. What we are saying is that over and above the qualities of the storm itself, a severe hurricane with a feminine name kills more people than a storm with a masculine name. That is what the archival data shows,” Shavitt explains to the Los Angeles Times. “It now appears that gender biases apply not only to people, but also to things.”

Via [USA TODAY], [L.A. Times]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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