University of South Florida


Former USF geosciences graduate student Michelle Saunders surveys individuals evacuating during Hurricane Irma in 2017

Former USF geosciences graduate student Michelle Saunders surveys individuals evacuating during Hurricane Irma in 2017.

USF geoscientists deploy to study evacuation behavior ahead of Hurricane Ian

As the Tampa Bay region prepares for Hurricane Ian, a team of researchers is on the road to collect data on how individuals respond in a natural disaster.

Led by geosciences Professor Jennifer Collins, the team is advancing hurricane evacuation research. They’re taking a two-pronged approach. They’ll travel to rest stops along Interstate 75 north to interview individuals evacuating their homes and will collect the names of those who evacuated to hurricane shelters operated by the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County who wish to share their experience with the team after the storm. 

For the rest stop team, they want to learn about the strength of weak ties, such as those who’ll be staying with friends of a friend who live outside a potential evacuation zone and the depth of those relationships. They’ll also ask about other social connections, including the number of people they have strong connections with and the reliability of those connections in a crisis. 

“The study is important to raise awareness for the public to think about their social connections for future evacuations, specifically the strength of weak ties. In a time of crisis, people you may only have a distant and small connection with, very often may help you out, so people should consider reaching out to those people if needed,” Collins said.

The shelter data entails collecting contact information from evacuees. Following the storm, the researchers will contact them, asking about their circumstances that resulted in their decision to evacuate to a shelter. 

They’ll compare the data, looking at who evacuated, who decided to stay home and ride out the storm and those who went to a shelter. The results will be used to inform emergency managers, those in charge of shelters, and those who communicate to the public to assist in preparedness efforts and help keep individuals out of harm’s way. 

Similar data has previously been collected by Collins and her team during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma in 2017. Funded by the National Science Foundation, they’ve also spent the last couple of years looking at how COVID-19 impacted evacuation behavior and how the availability of the vaccine influenced their decision to leave their homes or stay behind. 

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