Conservative Media May Be Influencing People Not to Evacuate During Hurricanes

Debris sits in front of a home that was damaged by hurricane Irma on September 19, 2017 in Marathon, Florida. (Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images)
Debris sits in front of a home that was damaged by hurricane Irma on September 19, 2017 in Marathon, Florida. (Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images)

The climate crisis is making already dangerous weather worse. That means it’s more important than ever to listen to evacuation orders and get out of harm’s way whether its catastrophic fires or souped up hurricanes. But new findings suggest that when politicians and media personalities deny that fact, the effects can put people in danger. The study, published in Science Advances on Friday, illuminates the ways that scepticism of scientific evidence could be turning evacuation into a partisan exercise.

The authors examined evacuation patterns during three different deadly hurricanes, including September 2017’s Hurricane Irma, August 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, and October 2016’s Hurricane Matthew. To do so, they obtained political and demographic data from precinct-level election results and the U.S. Census demographics on more than 2.7 million U.S. smartphone users residing in the affected areas of Florida and, in the case of Hurricane Harvey, also coastal Texas. Based on the voting precinct a smartphone user lived in, the authors determined their likely political alignments, assuming that voters in Trump-voting districts were more likely to follow right-wing media.

“Keep in mind that there are about 172,000 precincts across the U.S., so these represent very localised estimates of political affiliation,” Elisa Long, the study’s lead author and associate professor at University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in an email.

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For each of those users, they also obtained smartphone location data, which provided them with highly accurate, real-time GPS location data based on location pings. They found that while there wasn’t much difference between Democratic and Republican voters’ choice to evacuate during Hurricanes Harvey and Matthew, during Hurricane Irma, there was a sharp divide in how those of different political alignments responded to the storm. They found that residents who voted Republican in the 2016 election were about 10% less likely than Democrat voters to evacuate before the storm hit.

This change wasn’t explainable by changes in income or proximity to areas with the worst storm surge. The authors suggest that the key thing that changed between those two storms and Irma was the rhetoric used in conservative media.

Hurricane Irma, you may recall, was a Category 5 storm that hit Florida in 2017 and killed 134 people. Yet just days before Hurricane Irma made landfall exactly three years ago, conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter publicly questioned the coming storm’s severity. On Twitter, Coulter forecast (if one can call it that) coming “light rain,” saying residents were “at risk of dying from boredom.” And on his radio show, Limbaugh claimed that liberals were exaggerating statements about the hurricane’s seriousness “to advance a political agenda.”

“A likely Clinton voter is about 11 per cent more likely to evacuate during Irma than a nearby Trump voter — but this effect only occurs after conservative media fuelled scepticism emerged in September 2017,” said Long. “There was no difference before the scepticism emerged, but a wide partisan gap after.”

The study comes amid concern that exposure to conservative media may influence Americans’ beliefs about the severity of the covid-19 crisis, instilling scepticism that can encourage dangerous behaviour. The new study shows that climate denial by conservative pundits can have a similar effect.

“Aside from its technical rigour, what struck me about this study is how it identifies the distinct role that individual zealots — who fundamentally lack the authority to make rational scientific assessment on the central topic — can play in projecting doubt among the masses, which in this case and so many to follow, put the livelihood of millions in danger,” Alex Petersen, a researcher at University of California, Merced who has studied echo chambers but did not work on the study, said in an email.

Long hopes the new research will help policymakers and first response agencies better understand how different groups of people respond to government-issued alerts about natural disasters.

“This could help with allocating limited resources more effectively, and identifying better ways of conveying risk information to ensure that the most vulnerable populations respond appropriately,” she said.

Equipped with these findings and research methods, officials could attempt to counteract the consequences of consuming misinformation in media by doing targeted outreach campaigns in populations that may be less likely to take warnings seriously. If the new study is right about the power of conservative media, actions like this could save lives.