Survey: Refusal to evacuate, complacency remain problems during hurricanes

November 30, 2005

After the state had been battered by three hurricanes last year, many residents ignored the threat of Hurricane Jeanne and refused to leave their homes in evacuation zones, county emergency managers reported in a survey released today by a University of Central Florida researcher.

While the earlier storms helped to make residents more aware of the potential dangers from hurricanes, emergency managers also reported noticing more complacency as some residents grew weary of repeated hits.

As the 2005 hurricane season concludes this week, the researchers hope that their findings will help emergency managers better understand public reactions to hurricanes as they prepare for 2006 and try to avoid a repeat of the chaos that surrounded Hurricane Katrina.

Thirty-one percent of the emergency managers who were surveyed indicated that many residents did not heed evacuation orders before Hurricane Jeanne. While 31 percent also reported that many residents ignored evacuation orders before Hurricane Charley, that number dropped to 15 percent and 16 percent respectively for hurricanes Frances and Ivan before increasing sharply for Jeanne.

Also, 37 percent of emergency managers who were surveyed indicated that residents' use of hurricane shelters was "significantly below expectations" for Jeanne. That number was only 18 percent for Charley, 28 percent for Frances and 12 percent for Ivan.

Sixty-six emergency managers in Florida filled out the UCF surveys. Most worked for counties, while a handful worked for the state Division of Emergency Management or four cities that operated their own emergency operations centers. The survey had a response rate of 92 percent.

"Emergency communication strategies must be an essential part of an overall emergency management policy that directs the flows of financial resources, labor, equipment and information," said Naim Kapucu, an assistant professor in UCF's Department of Public Administration who analyzed the survey results.

"During hurricanes, we often see a lack of information, rumors and misinformation. The consequences can be dire, as illustrated by the case of Hurricane Katrina. Residents were apparently confused, agitated and resistant to an orderly rescue effort. Emergency managers must vigilantly work to keep their residents informed and apprised of the seriousness of the situation."

The survey results suggest room for improvement in delivering emergency messages in Spanish. While 37 percent of respondents indicated that providing emergency communications in Spanish was important, 40 percent said they did not communicate updates in Spanish.

Fifty-eight percent of respondents said tailoring warning messages to elderly residents, children or other special populations is important, while 20 percent said they do not tailor messages to those groups.

The surveys demonstrate that, based on the perceptions of emergency managers, public complacency about the storms increased even as residents' awareness of the dangers that hurricanes pose increased.

Sixty-eight percent of emergency managers agreed the public was knowledgeable about the dangers of hurricanes when Hurricane Charley struck in early August. The percentage increased to 89 percent by the time Hurricane Jeanne hit the state in late September.

However, 19 percent of emergency managers said they believed residents were complacent about threat warnings and advisories when Hurricane Jeanne hit, while only 6 percent said they believed residents were complacent at the time of Hurricane Charley.

The surveys are part of a broader effort by Kapucu and his colleagues to review emergency managers' and residents' responses to hurricanes and to suggest improvements for the coming years. Researchers also are reviewing State Emergency Response Team situation reports, which outline state responses to hurricanes, and newspaper coverage from around the state.

In addition to Kapucu, public administration professors XiaoHu Wang of UCF and Evan Berman of Louisiana State University, and formerly of UCF, administered the surveys. Graduate student Sarah Sprouse also assisted with the research effort.

University of Central Florida

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