'Hurricane scepticism' divided along political lines
Florida residents who voted for Trump were between 10% and 11% less likely than Clinton voters to evacuate prior to Hurricane Irma, a category 5 storm that made landfall in September 2017, according to an analysis of anonymized smartphone GPS data based on "pings" from each voting precinct. The findings suggest that partisan conservative media outlets created "hurricane skepticism" before the storm hit, casting doubt on the severity of the hurricane and generating high-stakes divisions in evacuation behavior.
The findings illustrate how partisan skepticism of scientific evidence may not only alter beliefs about major issues such as climate change, but can also affect the personal safety decisions people make when faced with a related impending disaster. While surveys have found increased skepticism along party lines concerning issues ranging from climate change to vaccine hesitancy to COVID-19 risks, scientists have not understood whether these beliefs alter people's behavior when a looming emergency suddenly makes partisan issues personal. Elisa Long and colleagues explored such high-stakes behavior in the context of Hurricane Irma, which devastated Florida days after conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter publicly questioned the storm's severity.
To understand the impact of such "hurricane skepticism" sparked by partisan conservative media, Long et al. examined evacuation patterns for Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Matthew using GPS location data, based on "pings" from each voting precinct that include phone ID, date, time, coordinates, and location accuracy, for more than 2.7 million U.S. smartphone users living in Florida and, in the case of 2017's Hurricane Harvey, in coastal Texas. This allowed the researchers to compare the evacuation behaviors of likely Clinton and Trump voters living as little as 150 meters apart.
They found that about 45% of Clinton voters in Florida evacuated Hurricane Irma compared to only 34% of Trump voters—a gap that was not present during Hurricane Harvey (in Texas) in August 2017 or during Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, before conservative media commentators introduced "hurricane skepticism." In the 10% of Florida precincts with the highest share of Trump voters, fewer than 29% of residents evacuated during Irma, as opposed to more than 40% in the 10% of precincts with the highest share of Clinton voters.
"In the face of these rapidly evolving and uncertain threats, trust in scientific evidence and government communications is paramount, and partisan disparities in protective behavior should be examined," Long et al. write. "While it is beyond the scope of our analysis to determine optimal evacuation behavior for every resident at risk of hurricane harm, the arrival of partisan differences in evacuation rates is alarming."