ODU research team studies individual evacuation decisions for major storms

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – Hampton Roads may be in the clear with Irma and Harvey, but hurricane season is far from over.

Researchers with Old Dominion University’s Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) say it would not take a Category 4 or 5 storm to do significant damage in this area. Their team has spent more than a decade researching storms and their impacts on communities.

The team looks at factors like infrastructure, types of storms and social reactions to storms. They work to discover how they are all connected, and studying those connections helps them generate information that can shape policies and communities.

One big question they focus on is: if a hurricane is coming, do you stay or do you leave? It’s a personal question, one that you may not think a group of strangers can answer. However, through data, the team can predict who stays or who goes.

“There is a lot of anxiety, even if the storm doesn’t hit or is mild,” says ODU Research Professor Joshua Behr. “One of the key drivers is risk perception.”

Behr and his team have identified 17 social-behavioral factors that affect a person’s decision to stay or leave. Those include things like limited financial resources, elderly or ill relatives, and past storm experience.

“Being prepared is good, but being prepared shouldn’t be at the expense of evacuation,” said Behr. He also says in Hampton Roads, multiple mild storms could have a negative affect if a stronger storm hits.

“You have a series of close calls, and overall, everyone comes out relatively unscathed.  Then you have a truly devastating event coming your way and the population isn’t motivated, at large and generally, to evacuate,” Behr says.

People should have plans for both staying and leaving, and then have backup plans. “When we talk about a catastrophic event, it doesn’t take a Category 5 necessarily,” Behr says.

He knows this first hand because his family went through Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and they are still feeling its impacts.

“The mental anguish and suffering from your environment being turned upside down is a lasting impact,” said Behr.

Behr says besides making a hurricane kit, people should also make sure they’re looking out for their neighbors during a storm, especially those who are sick or elderly.