The University of South Florida is helping prepare offices of emergency management across the nation for the upcoming hurricane season by determining how COVID-19 may impact evacuation behaviors.
Jennifer Collins, professor in the School of Geosciences, and Elizabeth Dunn, instructor in the USF College of Public Health, developed a survey currently being disseminated across hurricane-prone coastal states that inquires how residents perceive evacuation orders in the era of a global pandemic. The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, expands on their previous research conducted during the record-breaking 2020 hurricane season and looks at how risk perceptions associated with COVID-19 have changed now that the vaccine has become more widely available.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the complexity of planning for hurricanes as social distancing is in direct conflict with human mobility and congregation,” Collins said. “We are learning a lot about how people perceive their risk.”
Cities across the nation, including the city of Tampa, regional planning councils and meteorological organizations, have been circulating the survey via social media, requesting participation to help plan for the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season. The data will be used to inform leaders of potential shifts in the response to mandatory evacuation orders that could put more individuals in harm’s way. It will also highlight the need for more targeted messaging that emphasizes shelters’ adherence to social distancing guidelines and mitigation measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Due to the nature of disasters, typically there is not a focus on taking a pre-event snapshot of an individual’s behavioral intentions that can help identify vulnerable populations that may need a more targeted approach to support preparedness measures, especially during a pandemic,” Dunn said. “We hope people will take the time to complete the survey and provide us with valuable information for emergency planners."
"This is an important issue as many do not have the option to stay with friends or family, and hotels out of harm’s way can be booked up,” said Marshall Flynn, director of information systems & GIS for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. “Those making decisions to evacuate will weigh heavily whether it is safe to shelter with other strangers in a community setting. For that reason, we created graphics for some counties to show that distancing is being practiced during a pandemic.”
Survey participants are asked about their vaccination status and if that would impact their decision to evacuate, and possibly to a shelter, or shelter-in-place and endure associated risks, such as strong winds and storm surge. They’re also asked about mask mandates in their home county, whether their decision would be influenced by their family’s existing health conditions, as well as if their overall perspective has changed about mandatory evacuations compared to prior to the pandemic.
The research team is also administering a similar study across the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Data will be compared to results from the 2020 study, which was just published in the “Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.” More than 7,000 individuals were surveyed, 74 percent of whom stated they felt they were at greater risk of being in a shelter during COVID-19 than enduring a hurricane in their homes. Collins and Dunn are also reviewing data from accompanying studies collected following Hurricane Laura, which made landfall in Louisiana last August, and Hurricane Sally, which impacted communities in Alabama last September. Despite the hazardous conditions, the majority of respondents said they stayed at home to prevent possible exposure to COVID-19 in an evacuation shelter.
Researchers plan to start relaying preliminary data to emergency management departments within the next few weeks, prior to the start of hurricane season on June 1. Due to named systems starting to form earlier than that, new this year, the National Hurricane Center will begin issuing routine Tropical Weather Outlooks on May 15.