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ODU professors, researchers study mass evacuations during a pandemic

Know Your Zone: VDEM rolls out new hurricane evacuation plan
Posted at 7:11 PM, Jan 21, 2021

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - It's hard to even imagine that the start of hurricane season is just four months away, and it's likely it will be the second hurricane season happening inside of a pandemic.

"While we may not be thinking about upcoming hurricane season at this point, be aware the planners are already planning for the next season," said Jennifer Whytlaw, an assistant professor at Old Dominion University.

Whytlaw and Nicole Hutton, another assistant professor, also spent the past few months thinking about how COVID-19 will impact hurricane evacuation and planning.

"We know there are different types of concern now that there's COVID-19, but we don't know how to change things to accommodate difference," Hutton said.

The professors were awarded a $4,000 grant to create a web app showing changes in vulnerability and transportation needs during a storm and a pandemic.

Hutton and Whytlaw incorporated surveys conducted by the ODU and University of South Florida CONVERGE Hurricane + Pandemic research team, ODU Social Science Research Center's Life in Hampton Roads 2020, and VMASC's Hurricane Florence, in addition to holding focus groups with local and national stakeholders.

The study was made possible with a Quick Response Grant from the Natural Hazards Center specifically focused on transportation, vulnerable populations and COVID-19.

"Some of the participants were concerned, they needed more time to figure out things," Hutton said.

They looked at surveys and found that emergency managers suggested residents not evacuate long distances, but stay locally with friends and family or at alternative options like Airbnbs, not shelters.

"The preference is for non-congregate options if possible," Hutton said.

The study also found emergency managers are working with rideshare companies to develop a voucher system for transportation out of harm's way instead of buses, where you can’t be socially distant. The study also found more people intend to evacuate this year than in previous years due to financial issues and layoffs associated with COVID-19.

"Just because there is a pandemic, doesn't mean you will have to figure it out by yourself," Whytlaw said.