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UVA hopes to improve hurricane evacuation orders

When and how should officials issue hurricane evacuation orders? A new database created by UVA could offer answers.
When and how should officials issue hurricane evacuation orders? A new database created by UVA could offer answers.

In 2022 a devastating hurricane hit Ft. Myers and surrounding Lee County in Florida. Officials there issued an evacuation order just one day before the storm hit – and 149 people died. Afterward, reporters and the public had one big question:

What would have happened if the officials in Lee County had ordered an evacuation one or two days earlier?

UVA Engineering Professor Majid Shafiee-Jood says the implication was that if officials had issued the order one or two days earlier it would have saved lives, but he could find no evidence for that.

But Shafiee-Jood and his colleagues -- Professor Negin Alemazkoor and grad student Harsh Anand -- were determined to change that with a grant from UVA’s Environmental Institute. They began by using information from cell phone apps.

“Many of these apps – they collect your location information, and there are some data companies that collect that information and then sell it for different purposes," Shafiee-Jood explains.

They reviewed data from 25 different storms between 2014 and 2022, looking at when public warnings were issued and when people left the area. Take Hurricane Dorian, for example.

“Between 20-30% of the population that we had in our mobility database decided to evacuate," he recalls. "Many groups started evacuating even before the evacuation orders are issued, and of course like any hurricane, there are groups who just ignore the order and do not evacuate.”

Of course, disaster managers could just make the call sooner – better safe than sorry, but Shafiee-Jood says that is also risky.

“During Hurricane Florence in 2018, it was initially projected that the hurricane would make landfall at the border of North Carolina and Virginia, so four or five days before the projected date of the landfall the governor of Virginia issued an evacuation," Shafiee-Jood says. "The hurricane changed its direction, and instead of the border of North Carolina and Virginia it hits the border of North Carolina and South Carolina. It ended up being an $80 million decision, because they invested in opening emergency shelters, getting all the resources needed for emergency shelters, but they didn’t end up using them.”

And money isn’t the only thing at risk. Public trust could also be at stake. Just imagine someone making the decision of whether to leave home.

“Do I have car? Do I know where I want to go? Will I have enough money, because I won’t be working for a few days," Shafiee-Jood says. "I have to have money to pay for the hotel room, you know other stuff. It’s not a cheap decision. There’s a study that said, on average, it would cost a household $2,000-$5,000.”

And if it turns out that evacuation was unnecessary, public trust in future orders could be damaged.

The UVA team also hopes to learn how best to issue evacuation orders. Does a news conference help? Should you send text messages -- or is it enough to put announcements online. Is it better to make evacuation orders voluntary or mandatory, and who should make the announcement?

“Different states have different policies in terms of who and how to communicate. Like for instance in Virginia and South Carolina it’s very centralized, so everything goes through the governor’s office. In Florida, the counties make the decision on evacuation, and they are in charge of communicating it to their residents.”

Other questions to be answered by the database – how effective is the practice of creating geographic zones to identify areas at greatest and least risk in the event of a hurricane, and might certain parts of a zone – for demographic reasons – need more intensive warnings.

Because there is no one way to issue such warnings and evacuation orders in this country, and because we expect to see more storms in a changing climate, UVA hopes it can help states and localities to craft more effective laws and policies that save lives and make places more resilient. For more information:



This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Updated: May 21, 2024 at 8:46 AM EDT
Editor's Note: The University of Virginia is a financial supporter of Radio IQ.
Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief