Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve wondered how the coronavirus would affect hurricane preparedness. Those questions have taken on a new urgency as Tropical Storm Laura is now likely to strengthen into a hurricane that could threaten Florida early next week.
Based on a new survey by the University of South Florida’s School of Public Affairs, we now have a better idea of what is on the minds of those who live in hurricane-prone zones.
The survey, which was conducted between July 30 and Aug. 10, shows that, due to COVID-19, most Floridians are prepared to be more self-reliant and to stay home during a hurricane rather than going to a shelter or evacuating.
Despite high rates of unemployment and disrupted lifestyles and routines, 48 percent of Floridians expressed that COVID-19 has not negatively impacted their household’s emergency preparedness. In fact, 36.5 percent said they are more prepared for a storm than before the pandemic. Only 15.5 percent of those surveyed mentioned that COVID-19 had caused them to be less prepared for hurricane season.
It may very well be that after months of social isolation and quarantine, Floridians have become more accustomed to staying home and planning long-term for their needs and the needs of their family than in prior years. Many of the same items needed to self-isolate or quarantine overlap with being ready to ride out a hurricane at home. Most survey respondents reported having three days of non-perishable food (85 percent), drinking water (81 percent) and prescription medication (86 percent) per member of household, while a large majority (79 percent) mentioned that they could manage their household for three days without any assistance if a hurricane left their community without electricity and running water.
That said, one-third of Floridians have less than $1,000 available to cover an unexpected emergency. More than one-third (37 percent) of Floridians reported having less than $1,000 to cover unexpected emergency expenses. In that group, 9 percent reported having no money available. Fifteen percent of residents reported having $1,001 to $2,000 and 38 percent of households reported having more than $2,000 available.
As we enter the peak of hurricane season, local officials face tough decisions on how to prepare their communities for the potential of a major storm while also taking into account the added complications of the COVID-19 pandemic. These questions arose early on in the pandemic as emergency managers debated means of alternative shelter. Traditional sheltering methods focus on maximizing capacity, grouping sometimes hundreds of individuals in the same facility, making it impossible to maintain recommended social distancing guidelines- how to keep people safe without keeping them close. Survey respondents also shared these concerns, with 71 percent expressing that they would be less likely to use a shelter due to risks related to COVID-19 and 24 percent saying that COVID-19 would not impact their decision to seek shelter.
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Although an increase in self-reliance is positive, indeed, Floridians are often accused of underestimating the threat of hurricanes, underpreparing, or ignoring evacuation orders. The survey showed that Floridians are split on the impact of COVID-19 on their decision to evacuate. Nearly half of Floridians (47 percent) said that COVID-19 would not affect their decision to follow a voluntary evacuation and 44 percent said they would be less likely do so. While socially distanced sheltering options should be explored, emergency managers and local leaders should also be prepared for more residents choosing to remain at home during a hurricane. This includes providing clear communication on how best to prepare their homes to mitigate damage, what to include in an emergency kit, and information on where to find assistance when the storm passes. Local leaders should also stress to residents the risks and consequences of ignoring an evacuation order.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we function in almost every area of life, including how we think about and respond to hurricanes. A better understanding of Floridians’ attitudes toward sheltering and evacuations can help local officials prepare for disasters and provide targeted assistance to communities after a storm.
Christa Remington is assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida. The USF survey was conducted an online survey using Prodege MR, a leading market research provider. The sample was fielded to be representative of Florida’s demography based on region, age, gender, race, and ethnicity, and the results are reported with a confidence level of 95 percent and a margin of error +/- 4.