TAMPA, Fla. (Sept. 21, 2020) – University of South Florida geosciences Professor Jennifer Collins has been awarded a National Science Foundation (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 the USF COVID-19 Rapid Response Research Grant Program, that investigates how to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, workforce protection and special considerations for vulnerable populations in hurricane shelters.
The research team will expand on an online survey Collins created in June that drew responses from approximately 7,000 Florida residents. The 40-question survey, disseminated by partner agencies statewide, 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. 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 will also conduct a study post-evacuation in Florida, if one were to become activated, to determine how residents responded to those evacuation orders.
A link to the hurricane evacuation survey can be found here.
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