USF professor to study hurricane evacuations amidst COVID-19

Germs in the shape of Florida in a petri dish.(series)
Do Floridians feel safe evacuating when public health remains an issue?

The National Science Foundation awarded a University of South Florida professor a Rapid Response grant to study evacuation behaviors during a global pandemic.

USF Geosciences Professor Jennifer Collins will use the grant to investigate if people impacted by mandatory hurricane evacuations are choosing to ignore them and shelter in place, making the decision based on health concerns. The coronavirus pandemic poses a unique threat because of its fast spread, conflicting with hurricane evacuations, where people are often congregated.

Collins will work with the National Weather Service, Louisiana Public Health Institute and other meteorologists and emergency planners, who will disseminate digital surveys 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 in a news release. “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.”

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. Collins’ study will investigate the effectiveness of those measures, work to understand crucial resources and look for improvements for public messaging.

Collins is also working in collaboration with Elizabeth Dunn, an instructor in the USF College of Public Health. Dunn is also involved in a separate study that investigates how to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, workforce protection and special considerations for vulnerable populations in hurricane shelters. 

This study will amplify an online survey Collins created in June that drew responses from about 7,000 Floridians.

The 40-question survey distributed across the state asked a variety of questions regarding hurricane evacuation plans amidst the coronavirus pandemic. 

Half of the respondents said they viewed themselves as vulnerable to COVID-19 and 74% of respondents saw the risk of being in a shelter during the pandemic as more dangerous than enduring hurricane hazards.

The results of the June survey were shared with emergency planners in multiple states. 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. 

Kelly Hayes

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at [email protected].


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