This year's Atlantic Hurricane season is already extremely busy, and emergency officials and researchers both are watching how evacuations are being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jennifer Collins, a professor in the University of South Florida School of Geosciences, has received a National Science Foundation Rapid Response grant to study people's evacuation behaviors during the pandemic.
Collins is working with the Louisiana Public Health Institute, meteorologists, and emergency planners in disseminating the survey.
She spoke with Mark Schreiner with WUSF's University Beat on Sept. 23, just days after Collins released a digital survey for people impacted by Hurricane Laura, which hit Louisiana in late August.
Mark Schreiner: There are a lot of different things that are now required with evacuations during a hurricane because of COVID-19, are there not?
Jennifer Collins: That's right. I mean, in the past, if you think about it, we advised people to have that hurricane kit ready. Well, now we need to be thinking about these extra things we need to be adding to our hurricane kit and go bag — we need to be having enough masks for all our families for several days, having sanitizer, and so on added to the kit.
And in terms of government response, that's a little bit different too. Particularly for Hurricane Laura, hotels were used frequently as a government method to shelter people instead of having them congregate in mass shelters.
So there are quite a few differences this season compared to the past, and I think several states will be interested in the results from our study where we really look at some of those options of going to a hotel and their experiences to see if we can learn off of those and what other states might want to do as a result.
Schreiner: Now this research is actually also expanding on an online survey that you had created earlier this year. Why don't you tell me about that?
Collins: That's correct. We did a survey earlier this year for residents of Florida, so it was right at the beginning of the hurricane season. So we're interested in very similar questions like how COVID-19, they thought would affect their decision to evacuate or not.
And we got over 7,000 responses from Florida residents statewide in just a few weeks. And we learned that respondents view themselves as vulnerable to COVID-19 due to pre-existing conditions, and almost 73% viewed the risk of being in a shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic as more dangerous than enduring hurricane hazards.
And additionally, there was a significant number of individuals who would choose to not utilize a public shelter during COVID-19 when they would have previously.
Schreiner: Are you receiving responses to this new grant already in terms of answers that folks experienced during Laura?
Collins: The responses we've seen in just under 24 hours (after the survey's release Sept. 21) are quite shocking.
One respondent says she just got her power back. She said she has a roof, but many of her neighbors don't.
The situation out there seems quite dire, and I'm not really sure that it's getting the national attention that maybe it should have.
In fact, she said, "Related to COVID-19, we are not social distancing. Coronavirus is literally the last thing on people's mind. I guess everyone is in survival mode. We are more concerned with food and shelter than the virus. To be honest, the virus seems very far away right now to people who have lost quite literally everything they have.
"I have seen very few people wearing masks. Even the stores that did survive the storm aren't enforcing the mask mandate anymore. It would seem they understand that people here have their minds on other things right now."
In addition to the survey for people affected by Hurricane Laura — available in both English and Spanish — the partnership has released similar surveys (English and Spanish) for Gulf Coast residents who were impacted by Hurricane Sally, which made landfall earlier this month.
They're also looking at translating surveys into French Creole that would focus on Laura-affected residents in Louisiana, as well as people affected by hurricane evacuations in the US Virgin Islands.
Collins is also working in collaboration with USF College of Public Health instructor Elizabeth Dunn, who is also conducting a separate study, funded by the USF COVID-19 Rapid Response Research Grant Program. That study is looking at mitigating the spread of coronavirus and protecting vulnerable populations in hurricane shelters.