Study investigates hurricane evacuations in the era of COVID-19

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The 2020 hurricane season is breaking records with 23 named storms, and more are projected to develop over the next few weeks. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts there will be as many as 25 by the time the season ends. Researchers say this extremely active forecast is especially troublesome due to the compounding risks of COVID-19.

USF geosciences Professor Jennifer Collins has been awarded an NSF Rapid Response grant to study evacuation behaviors during a global pandemic. Collins is examining whether people impacted by mandatory hurricane evacuations are choosing to ignore them and shelter in place due to health concerns. COVID-19 poses a unique threat since physical distancing requirements conflict with human mobility and the congregation that occurs during hurricane evacuations. The National Weather Service, Louisiana Public Health Institute and other meteorologists and emergency planners are assisting in the study by disseminating a digital survey to those impacted by Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 hurricane, which made landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 26.

“Hurricane Laura provided a unique research opportunity as it was the first hurricane that caused a large evacuation during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Collins said. “Therefore, this is the first time we can explore why during COVID-19 and a major hurricane that some people chose to stay at home, some chose to go to a shelter and others chose to evacuate elsewhere.”

Collins is working in collaboration with co-principal investigator Elizabeth Dunn, instructor in the USF College of Public Health. Dunn is also involved in a separate study, funded by a USF COVID-19 Rapid Response Research Grant, that investigates how to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, workforce protection and special considerations for vulnerable populations in hurricane shelters. The NSF Rapid Response team also includes USF graduate student Amy Polen and Mark Welford from the University of Northern Iowa.

The research team will expand on an online survey Collins created in June that drew responses from 7,102 Florida residents. The 40-question survey was disseminated by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, the Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center and partner agencies statewide. It asked a variety of questions regarding hurricane evacuation plans in the age of COVID-19. Half of the respondents said they viewed themselves as vulnerable to COVID-19 due to their health status, and 74.3% of individuals viewed the risk of being in a shelter during the pandemic as more dangerous than enduring hurricane hazards. Additionally, there was a significant number of individuals who stated they would have utilized a public shelter in the past but would choose not to due to the coronavirus. These results have already been shared with emergency planners in Florida and in other states in an effort to help them analyze various scenarios and evaluate existing strategies.

“Understanding risk perception of COVID-19 and how it affects their decision to evacuate, despite the warnings, will help to inform public health messaging and identify safety education strategies to increase household preparedness in hurricane-prone coastal communities,” Dunn said. “Furthermore, we will be able to identify if social distancing, mask usage, evacuation procedures and sheltering plans impact virus transmission following a large-scale evacuation during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.”

Due to the pandemic, many hotels in the areas impacted by Hurricane Laura served as official public evacuation shelters to minimize the need for large, often crowded, congregate shelters. This new study will investigate the effectiveness of those measures, help anticipate crucial resources, the need for mutual aid agreements and reveal improvements for public messaging that will ultimately help save lives. The team is also disseminating a similar survey to those impacted by Hurricane Sally, a Category 2 hurricane, which made landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama on Sept. 16.

Reposted from USF Newsroom.