• H​urricane Ian is heading toward Florida’s Gulf Coast, and is projected to make the closest pass to Tampa Bay by a major hurricane since 1950
  • USF geoscientists are collecting data on evacuation behavior ahead of Hurricane Ian’s arrival

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 geoscience Professor Jennifer Collins, a team of University of South Florida (USF) researchers are advancing hurricane evacuation research, taking a two-pronged approach to how people react to hurricanes. The group plans to 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.

The researchers noted that they will 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 then 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.