The polarization of American politics even extends to escaping life-threatening storms, a new study has found. The likelihood of Florida residents to evacuate in the face of 2017's Hurricane Irma could be predicted based on who they backed at the previous year's elections. The findings show just how strongly ideologically-driven science denial can override people's survival instincts.
Hurricane Irma was the most powerful hurricane recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, part of the exceptionally devastating 2017 hurricane season. As it headed for Florida, meteorologists and authorities pleaded with people in its path to flee. Some didn't listen and paid with their lives, with 10 direct and 77 indirect deaths reported.
UCLA's Dr Elisa Long investigated what would cause people to stick around while such epic storms headed straight for them and found political allegiance played a big part via the media outlets people listened to.
Long obtained anonymized GPS data for 2.7 million smartphones in Texas and Florida, allowing her to observe the movements of their owners as Irma and Harvey approached. Although Long cannot know how an individual smartphone user voted, she looked at precinct results for users' usual locations. The more strongly an area supported Hilary Clinton at the 2016 election, the more likely its voters were to evacuate before Irma.
Among Florida residents whose homes were threatened by Irma, Long reports in Science Advances, 45 percent of Clinton voters took evasive action. The figure was just 34 percent of those who backed Donald Trump. Long has ruled out the possibility this difference was a product of the hurricanes hitting Democrat-leaning areas harder since areas with very different votes were often a short stroll apart.
It's possible Republican voters are simply more risk-tolerant and inclined to trust their survival skills. However, during Hurricanes Harvey and 2016's Matthew, neither of which got the same talking down, Republicans were slightly more likely to flee, allowing for demographics. Moreover, the paper notes, “politicization of hurricanes spiked in 2017 when conservative media outlets claimed that hurricane warnings were another example of 'fake news.'"
Hurricane warnings really became political on September 5, Long and co-authors note, when prominent conservatives Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter told their followers to ignore advice about Irma. Both individuals associated predictions of its severity with concerns about global warming, which they have long called fake.
Prior to that date, Long found, Republicans and Democrats were roughly equally likely to get out of a hurricane's way. The sharp divergence in their behavior thereafter suggests it was the pundit's interventions, rather than underlying personalities, that drove the different responses.
Long's work could have immediate relevance, with 2020 on track to break the North Atlantic tropical storm record. More generally, the research points to the dangers of dismissing scientific advice based on the agendas of commentators whose politics they share.