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Hurricane Irma study links pre-storm hype to post-storm trauma

The University of California Irvine found that the more people followed news before the storm, the more they stressed later.
Published Jan. 4

Preparing for Hurricane Irma was stressful enough. But new research shows that Floridians who were constantly immersed in the news coverage leading up to the Category 4 storm that rocked the state in 2017 were more at risk of post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems.

Researchers from the University of California Irvine are the first to study individuals in the hours before a hurricane hit their community. The team were able to track more than 1,600 Floridians before and after Hurricane Irma to study the effects of news media coverage leading up to the landfall of the storm and its mental health effects in the aftermath. The results of this longitudinal study were published in JAMA Network Open Thursday.

"This particular paper looked at people's anticipation of how they would be feeling in the aftermath of the hurricane," said Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science at the University of California Irvine, and the senior author of the study. "Individuals who anticipated being particularly stressed afterward were paying a lot more attention to the media in that pre-storm period, at a time when uncertainty was high, and the media was sensational."

The university partnered with a research firm to identify a sample of people in Florida 60 hours before the storm was expected to hit. These 1,600 Floridians filled out surveys on their smartphones before the storm. They were contacted to fill out another round of surveys a month after Irma. Researchers were surprised by the 90 percent response rate, Silver said.

"All the studies that had been done before looked at people after a hurricane was over. They asked questions about how they felt and the decisions they made before the storm, but it was always retrospective. What we know now is that people's experience in the aftermath may 'color' the way they remember it," Silver said.

RELATED: Remembering Hurricane Irma one year later

Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in September 2017 as Hurricane Irma barreled toward Florida. Irma came just a month after Hurricane Harvey, which wrecked havoc on Texas and became the costliest tropical cyclone on record with $125 billion in damage. Hurricane Maria would devastate Puerto Rico just weeks after Irma, capping off a particularly catastrophic 2017 storm season.

Irma's path would shift several times, striking the Florida Keys before making landfall again in Monroe County. Irma was the first Category 5 storm of the 2017 hurricane season, though it slowed to a Category 4 as it narrowed in on Florida. More than half the state, or 13 million Floridians, was without power in the aftermath. Damages were estimated to be $50 billion. National media, from the Weather Channel to CNN, flocked to Southwest Florida in advance of the hurricane.

For this specific study, the California researchers examined how and when Florida residents engaged with news coverage. They tracked it in three main categories: traditional media, which included print, television and radio outlets; online media such as news websites; and social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Participants who were keeping track of the storm on all channels, or at least more than one, were more likely to experience post-traumatic stress and other anxiety-type mental health issues.

This is the first of several expected research papers to be published about disaster response, she said. Silver and her team also tracked Floridians' response to the 2018 hurricane season, including Hurricane Michael, which battered the Panhandle in October. The estimated losses from Michael have topped $4.65 billion.

"The media attention was intense," said Silver, who has been studying the role of media coverage in disaster situations since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "The degree of exposure was a strong predictor of understanding how people would be feeling after."

Silver doesn't recommend that residents tune out media coverage. But she said the study illuminates issues of being too enthralled.

"One of the important messages from this is that people should pay attention to the amount of media they're exposed to," Silver said. "We're not suggesting not paying attention. But the degree to which they're immersed — if the radio or TV is on the in the background as they scroll through social media — about an uncertain threat takes a toll."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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