Who Evacuates When Hurricanes Approach? The Role of Risk, Information, and Location


  • *Direct correspondence to Robert Stein, Department of Political Science, Rice University, Ms 27, Houston, TX 77251 〈stein@rice.edu〉. Data and statistical coding are available from the first author for those wishing to replicate the study. The work reported in this article was funded in part by the National Science Foundation through Grant CMMI-0728040, and the Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security of the City of Houston, Texas. We wish to acknowledge the assistance of Rick Wilson and Jim Turley in the design of the survey instrument.


Objective. This article offers an expanded perspective on evacuation decision making during severe weather. In particular, this work focuses on uncovering determinants of individual evacuation decisions.

Methods. We draw on a survey conducted in 2005 of residents in the eight-county Houston metropolitan area after Hurricane Rita made landfall on September 24, 2005.

Results. We find that evacuation decisions are influenced by a heterogeneous set of parameters, including perceived risk from wind, influence of media and neighbors, and awareness of evacuation zone, that are often at variance with one of the primary measures of risk used by public officials to order or recommend an evacuation (i.e., storm surge). We further find that perceived risk and its influence on evacuation behavior is a local phenomenon more readily communicated by and among individuals who share the same geography, as is the case with residents living inside and outside official risk areas.

Conclusions. Who evacuates and why is partially dependent on where one lives because perceptions of risk are not uniformly shared across the area threatened by an approaching hurricane and the same sources and content of information do not have the same effect on evacuation behavior. Hence, efforts to persuade residential populations about risk and when, where, and how to evacuate or shelter in place should originate in the neighborhood rather than emanating from blanket statements from the media or public officials. Our findings also raise important policy questions (included in the discussion section) that require further study and consideration by those responsible with organizing and implementing evacuation plans.