Hurricanes Laura and Sally: A Case Study of Evacuation Decision-Making in the Age of COVID-19

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This study examines risk perceptions and evacuation planning for those residents affected by Hurricane Laura–the first major hurricane evacuation during the COVID-19 pandemic–and Hurricane Sally, prior to the widespread availability of vaccines. Research on hurricane evacuation behavior and risk perceptions during a pandemic is critical for quantifying the intersect of these compounding threats. Analyses captured how people perceive public shelters and whether evacuation choices changed in light of the pandemic. Many study participants considered themselves vulnerable to COVID-19 (39.4%) and two-thirds believed it would be “very serious” if they or their loved ones contracted COVID-19, but this had no impact on their actual evacuation decision-making. Approximately 75% of the sample stayed at home during Hurricanes Laura or Sally, and of these, just over 80% indicated that COVID-19 was a somewhat important deciding factor. This reflects the partial role that COVID-19 played in balancing individual and household protective action decision-making during complex disasters. Whereas 15.5% wanted to evacuate but waited until it was too late. For those who evacuated to a hotel, many found that staff and guests wore masks and socially distanced in common spaces. Of particular interest is that individuals have a continued negative perception of public shelters’ ability to safeguard against COVID-19 which was coupled with a significant decrease in the number of respondents that would potentially use shelters in 2020 compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic. These results have and will inform future hazard mitigation planning during the current or future pandemic, or infectious disease outbreaks.

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Weather, Climate, and Society, in press