Colorado State Researchers Study How U.S. Gulf and East Coast Residents Respond to Hurricane Evacuation Warnings

When faced with threats of hurricanes making landfall along the U.S. Gulf and East coasts, what influences the behaviors of coastal residents regarding evacuation? Researchers at Colorado State University are set to find out in a study supported by $460,000 from the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Over the next three hurricane seasons, they will study what residents do when faced with the decision to evacuate.

About 600 individuals who live along the U.S. coast from Texas to North Carolina will participate in the three-year study. Participants have been sampled to ensure diverse representation in terms of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, gender, age and family structure. The study involves mail surveys, phone interviews and in-person interviews. Researchers will observe what factors influence individuals as they interpret hurricane risk and make decisions regarding evacuation.

The results from the study will be used to understand how people orient toward hurricane risk. Additionally, based on data from the study, the researchers will translate the information into real world applications that help meteorologists and emergency managers communicate warnings more effectively in disaster situations.

“There has been considerable research on the human and social dynamics surrounding hurricanes but surprisingly few examinations of the manner in which individuals perceive hurricane risk. Relatively little is known about how such risk perception may affect evacuation behavior,” said Craig Trumbo, associate professor in CSU’s Department of Journalism and Technical Communication and lead researcher of the study.

The study kicked off this summer with mail surveys at the start of hurricane season. As hurricane warnings are posted throughout the summer and fall, CSU researchers will conduct phone interviews during the warning and recovery phases.

“The phone interviews during hurricane warning periods will take place in real time. Because hurricanes have an extended warning time, people tend to mill around. They call friends and family and watch the news, and that is the kind of information we are interested in. We want to understand what people think about hurricane risk, whether they understand the risk and how they make decisions regarding evacuation in case of hurricane landfall,” said Lori Peek, assistant professor in CSU’s Department of Sociology. “On top of all that, we want to discern how household characteristics and other demographic factors affect those processes. Do men and women react in the same way? Do decisions change if children are in the household? What about the elderly and persons with disabilities?”

“This is a somewhat unique research design in that no one that we know of has conducted phone interviews in real time as people are making a decision to evacuate. Most studies on risk perception in the context of natural hazards, and especially hurricanes, are done retrospectively; we are flipping it around and conducting this study prospectively, on the front end,” Trumbo said.

Following hurricane events, CSU researchers will conduct recovery phase phone interviews where questions will be focused on who made decisions regarding fleeing or staying put and how difficult the decision was to evacuate or not.

It will be interesting to see how optimistic bias comes through in our research, said Trumbo.

“Optimistic bias is when individuals believe that they are less likely than others to have bad or harmful things happen to them, such as, ‘I think I am a better than average driver and therefore less likely than others to be in an accident.’ Those who live on the coast may think, ‘I live on the coast but I won’t be affected by hurricanes,’” he said.

Beyond observing how people make decisions regarding hurricane risk, CSU researchers will study how individuals and communities bounce back from hurricane disasters and get a better understanding of residents’ climate change perceptions as related to hurricanes.

The Gulf oil spill has added a new component, and researchers are interested to see how it may or may not affect residents’ risk perception.

“At this point, the effect of the oil spill is an unknown as it relates to how people will react to hurricane evacuation orders, but it is certain the consequences of the oil spill will continue to unfold for a very long time,” Peek said.

The CSU team includes Trumbo, Peek, Holly Marlatt, Michelle Lueck, Brian McNoldy and Wayne Schubert. Team member Eve Gruntfest is from the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.