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Pets in South Carolina will not be abandoned, survey shows, but attitudes could hamper hurricane evacuations

By Steven Powell, spowell2@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-1923

Things are literally up in the air if a hurricane approaches, but family pets in South Carolina should now breathe a little easier. In a recent survey of coastal residents about their hurricane plans, the one near-certainty was that pets would be going with their owners in any evacuation – 95 percent of owners said so.

But apart from soothing some canine and feline nerves, the survey uncovered a number of worrisome attitudes about intended evacuation behaviors among coastal residents.

Among the items of chief concern is a widespread unwillingness to evacuate in advance of a Category 1 or 2 hurricane – nearly two-thirds of residents said they wouldn’t leave their coastal homes.

"That really surprised us," said Susan Cutter, a professor of geography and director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, which was part of a partnership that conducted the survey. "We have experience in lots of places along the hurricane coasts where Category 1 and 2 storms have impact that is very strong – obviously not as great as a larger magnitude storm, but nevertheless, it's a hurricane."

"People say, 'Oh category 1, no big deal.' But any hurricane is a big deal, and people need to recognize that and take precautions."

Another problem is the possible effect of what are called "shadow evacuations," in which residents outside of designated evacuation areas add to the crush of evacuees. The USC research team estimated that up to 100,000 people from outside the evacuation area might swell the exodus in the face of a major storm in the state, which would slow the process and potentially put more people in harm's way.

"We see shadow evacuations all the time," said Cutter. "Sometimes they're huge, like what happened with Hurricane Rita in Houston in 2005. It overwhelmed all of the emergency management for that particular storm – something on the order of a million and a half people evacuated even though they were not in a designated evacuation zone”.

"The results of this survey are really proving what we had hypothesized. This was our first effort to systematically assess the shadow evacuation before a storm occurs, and the data will be a valuable benchmark for future post-hurricane surveys."

In addition, a third of the respondents were either uncertain or incorrect about whether they were located in a storm surge or FEMA flood zone. This lack of knowledge could contribute to a lack of family preparedness, non-compliance with evacuation orders, and an even larger shadow evacuation.

A family's concern for the welfare of its animals is laudable and, as the survey results showed, almost universal. But it creates yet another obstacle to evacuating when necessary – one that emergency managers might want to take into account in planning public shelter options.

"We have seen evidence in the literature that one of the reasons people don't evacuate is because of family pets," said Cutter. "Not all public shelters accept pets. Not all hotels are pet-friendly. Families need to bring food for the pets. So it's definitely a factor in some households."

The state of South Carolina took these survey results into account in revising its hurricane plan for the 2012 season, and a detailed 40-page summary of the data has just been released. The full report can be found on USC's Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute website.

The survey was conducted as a partnership between the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the South Carolina Emergency Management Division and the University of South Carolina Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute. Residents in the eight coastal counties in South Carolina were sampled between March and May of 2011 on their past and potential evacuation behavior in response to hurricanes, with 3272 responses being returned.

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Posted: 06/04/12 @ 9:40 AM | Updated: 06/04/12 @ 9:47 AM | Permalink

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