An assessment of the impact of Hurricane Ivan on Jamaica by the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) in 2004 stated, “The event’s direct damage and indirect losses amount to eight per cent of the country’s current GDP in 2003 (almost J$36,000 million or US$580 million).” Yet this did not seem to dampen the spirits of many Jamaicans I spoke to in Miami right after the hurricane. I heard jokes like, “What did Ivan say to the palm tree?” “Hang on to your nuts, this isn’t going to be a regular blow job.” “What did the yacht say when it heard Ivan was coming?” “Oh ship!” “What do steroids and Ivan have in common?” “They make Jamaicans run like hell.” One told me about the three steps to take in hurricane season. Step one—Buy enough food and bottled water to last your family for at least three days. Step two—Put these supplies into your car. Step three—Drive to Nebraska and remain there until Halloween. When I asked how they were able to joke after something like that, one of the guys asked me, “Boss, what you want me to do, cry?”
In fact because they stopped naming all hurricanes after women in 1979 and subsequently alternated the male and female names, I got both barrels. Despite being deeply concerned about his country and his relatives in Jamaica one of my acquaintances asked, “Why are hurricanes named after men?” When I responded that it is because most men are a bunch of windbags full of hot air, he replied, “Because they’re noisy, make a huge mess, and if you look into their eyes there’s nothing there.” Then he asked me why they named hurricanes like Frances after women. I didn’t know so he told me, “Because they arrive wet and wild and when they leave they take your house and car.”
Now there’s a storm brewing over research conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois and Arizona State. They looked at deaths caused by hurricanes between 1950 — when storms were first named — and 2012. Even after excluding the damage caused by hurricanes Katrina and Audrey, particularly deadly storms that would have skewed their model, they found that hurricanes with female names caused an average of 45 deaths, compared with 23 deaths from storms with male names. In fact, there seems to be a contradiction in what we think women are capable of and how we respond to storms named after them.
There is a poem by Rudyard Kipling called “The Female of the Species” and it captures the belief of the embittered male psychologically damaged after an encounter or experience with the female of the species. Kipling says, “When Nag the basking cobra hears the careless foot of man, / He will sometimes wriggle sideways and avoid it if he can. / But his mate makes no such motion where she camps beside the trail. / For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”
Despite this long-standing view of how fatal the attraction to women can be, the study alleges that hurricanes with female names are more deadly than those with male names because people don’t take those with women’s names as seriously as they do those with male names. The study suggests that changing a hurricane’s name from Charley to Eloise, or Victor to Victoria “could nearly triple its death toll”. This is as serious a gender issue as you can get. “People imagining a ‘female’ hurricane were not as willing to seek shelter,” said Prof Sharon Shavitt, one of the co-authors of the research paper. “The stereotypes that underlie these judgments are subtle and not necessarily hostile toward women — they may involve viewing women as warmer and less aggressive than men.”
Responding to critics, Prof Shavitt said that people constantly apply gender biases without realising it. For example, previous studies have shown that a résumé with a man’s name on the top is perceived differently than the same one with a woman’s name on top. “It now appears that gender biases apply not only to people, but also to things,” she said. Her team ran several follow-up experiments to test their hypothesis that hurricanes with male and female names are perceived differently. In one experiment, volunteers were given the names of ten hurricanes and asked to predict their intensity based on nothing but the name. “Omar” was predicted to be the most intense. “Dolly” was expected to be the least intense. In another experiment, volunteers were given a weather map and a written scenario describing a storm that was known either as Hurricane Danny or Hurricane Kate. The scenario also included a voluntary evacuation order. Participants who read about Hurricane Danny were more likely to say they would evacuate their homes than those who had read about Hurricane Kate, even though the information was exactly the same. The researchers also found that women were just as likely as men to think hurricanes with male names were more daunting than those with female names.
It is rumoured that because of the research findings The Weather Channel will now name all hurricanes after monsters starting “Abe Sapien (Hellboy)” and including “Cyclops”, “Leviathan”, the “Jersey Devil” and “Voldemort”.