Storm Evacuations Likely to Cause Ripple Effects That Stall Transportation / Communications

Hurricane damage at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS

Large-scale evacuations during severe storms like Hurricane Irma cause ripple effects that clog and stall transportation and communications infrastructure, says a Virginia Tech expert.

“People drop what they’re doing to seek a secure location and they get on their phones to start checking in on family and loved ones,” said Madhav Marathe, a researcher at the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech.

“Most also follow orders to evacuate.?This can lead to ‘flash-congestion’ on both our transportation and communication networks because suddenly we have a high density of people stuck on the same roads, accessing the same cell towers, trying to reach out and assess their situation. ?Of course, authorities can mitigate the congestion to some extent by scheduling the evacuations and changing lane directions.”

As Florida residents and others on the East Coast brace for one of the most powerful hurricanes in history, evacuations, road congestion, communication systems, and human behavior during a large scale disaster is being watched carefully by experts like Marathe who say experience drives a large part of our reactions.

 “Prior severe weather experience is a consistent predictor of an individual’s response to future events. Those who have lived through a previous hurricanes use past experience and available current information ?to make more accurate assessments on the potential impact. From a social standpoint, evacuation can also prove contagious. We call it ‘herding’ behavior. If individuals observe people around them evacuating, their risk perception heightens and they’re more likely to follow the same behavior often overriding their original plans.”

Marathe also points out that recovery efforts rely on consistent and dependable communications. “The ability to gain access to functional telecommunications is imperative to the safety of people in the affected areas. Communicating relevant information allows a passive individual to become an active first responder. It allows them to make informed decisions to help themselves, safely assist those around them and navigate the safest routes out of the devastation. We have also found, when informed about the safety of their loved ones, individuals are less likely to take risks or make dangerous decisions.”

Of course rebuilding post-disaster is on the minds of everyone in the path of the storm. ?“There are a number of long-term issues that arise as well, for a potential reasons, including citizens and business seeking alternate locations to relocate due their risk perception of a future event or the economic hardships they might face in rebuilding. Government policies might ?actively promote rezoning and incentivize more sustainable development and topographical and structural changes to the area, that might ?make rebuilding hard or in some cases impossible.”