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Survey shows gaps in public awareness of coastal storm risk

A survey of Connecticut coastal residents highlights the need for public education about hurricane risk and preparations that would enable more people to evacuate during severe storms.

That's the assessment of James O'Donnell, executive director of the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation, in response to the results of a survey of more than 1,100 residents who live within two miles of the state's shoreline.

The survey, conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, shows that three-quarters of coastal residents have never seen a local evacuation map and that only 58 percent would obey an official evacuation notification issued during a Category 2 hurricane, when wind speeds top 96 miles per hour. The survey was released Thursday.

O'Donnell, who heads the year-old institute based at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus in Groton, said the most significant findings of the survey were the four key reasons cited by people for not evacuating:

• wanting to stay to protect property, businesses and pets

• not being able to afford to leave or unable to because of poor health

• not knowing where to go or lacking transportation

• wanting to stay to watch the storm.

"These issues are likely to be among the key things that need to be addressed," he said in an email message. "There is a public safety impact of these individual decisions that is pretty substantial. Police and firemen are put at risk and distracted from other priorities."

Emergency management officials could focus planning efforts on ensuring that people who lack transportation, have nowhere to go or are in poor health are provided with a means of escape and shelter, he said.

"People who think their property and pets are at risk might be harder groups to move," he said.

He added that people must be able to have confidence in storm predictions to increase compliance with evacuation orders.

"What is essential is that predictions are accurate," he said. "Unnecessary evacuations have costs and diminish compliance during the next storm."

Respondents to the survey were from communities damaged by Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. During both events, many people stayed in their homes despite warnings, according to a news release about the survey.

Jennifer Marlon, associate research scientist with the Yale project, said the survey demonstrates the need for emergency management officials to prepare effective messages that focus on the needs of their audience.

"Advancing storm preparedness and communication is vital for this region as the U.S. National Climate Assessment predicts hurricanes will grow worse in the coming decades," she said.

The project was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Sea Grant Coastal Storm Awareness Program. Among other findings of the survey:

• Only 21 percent of respondents said they would evacuate in advance of a Category 2 hurricane if they did not receive an official notification.

• About one-third believed they would be safer at home during a strong hurricane.

• Seventy percent said they were unaware or unsure whether their homes were located within an evacuation zone.

• About half said damage from past storms was more than they had expected, while 19 percent said it was less than they had expected.

• About one-third said they have evacuated at least once due to a storm since 2009.

Twitter: @BensonJudy


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