TAMPA, Fla — Evacuations during hurricane season are the norm in Florida, but in 2020 COVID-19 changed that dynamic.
"We had residents that were very adamant about not leaving," USF Instructor Elizabeth Dunn said.
She's one of many hurricane researchers and planners using a survey to study hurricane preparedness in Tampa Bay and other coastal states.
"Last year, at the height of the pandemic, some of the sediment was more centered around having a fear of maybe COVID or not understanding or not feeling confident to go into a shelter," Dunn said.
Researchers noticed a potentially deadly trend when people wanted to stay home.
One of the first questions asked if people would go to a shelter during an evacuation order. 85 percent said no, they would rather ride out the storm.
Another question asked if they would feel safe in a shelter. 68 percent didn't feel proper measures would be taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"That really was a concern, because shelters very well may be a safer alternative if you are in an area ordered to evacuate from a hurricane because you're at threat from a storm surge or something," Dr. Jennifer Collins, USF's lead investigator on the survey said.
In 2020, emergency managers used the data to develop plans for socially distanced shelters with strict COVID-19 protocols. They'll be doing the same again this year.
"It was a challenge planning for evacuations last year. We'll still have to have those COVID-19 precautions and plans in place this year, which we do," Paul Womble, the Emergency Management Director in Polk County said.
With more than nine million people vaccinated in Florida, researchers hope that immunity will help people feel safe to evacuate if needed.
"I'm hopeful now that vaccines have come out this year and many of our population is starting to get it or they have had it, that people will now consider shelters in their evacuation planning if they need to," Dr. Collins said.
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