Where were you during the last hurricane? Cell phone data used to forecast evacuations

New behavioral forecast shows fewer people would evacuate Central Florida coastal cities

Central Florida emergency management planners are now using research based on cell phone data to help plan for hurricane-related evacuations.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Central Florida emergency management planners are now using research based on cell phone data to help plan for hurricane-related evacuations.

The Regional Behavioral Analysis, conducted by Cambridge Systematics with the help of the University of Central Florida, was published last year for the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council (ECFRPC).

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The introduction claims there has been no update to the behavioral study since 2010 when the Florida Department of Transportation conducted a phone survey to ask if residents would evacuate their homes if a hurricane was approaching, but the Florida Division of Emergency Management told News 6 the studies are conducted every five years.

According to the new report, researchers used cell phone location-based services, also known as “pings,” to monitor the activity of thousands of Florida residents in the days leading up to, during and after three hurricanes hit the state: Matthew in 2016, Irma in 2017, and Michael in 2018.

The report found 16% evacuated for Matthew, 29% evacuated for Irma and 24% evacuated for Michael statewide.

Researchers used the data to estimate how many residents in Volusia, Brevard and Flagler counties would evacuate.

According to the research, if a category three hurricane were approaching, an average of 68% of central Florida coastal residents would leave their homes.

That’s fewer than the 76% predicted using the phone survey model.

“I think it’s definitely more realistic,” said Michelle Chechowski, ECFRPC’s Director of Emergency Management.

She told News 6 members of the council will use this data to plan for how many shelters they may need.

“We want people to go to those shelters as a last resort,” she said. “We want them to depend on those friends and families and go more inland and not have to depend on the government.”

In order to get to those friends and families, the study estimated coastal evacuees will hit the road in 240,884 vehicles.

With more people moving to Central Florida every day, researchers estimate that number could grow to 251,875 vehicles by the year 2025.

“It’s stressful,” News 6 Traffic Safety Expert Trooper Steve Montiero said.

Montiero said a lot of the stress his fellow state troopers experience during hurricane evacuations could be prevented if people planned for a worst-case scenario.

“I have a kit. I’m ready,” Montiero said. “I don’t think the average person goes through the process in their head: ‘Alright, what does it take for me to get from point A to point B with the possibility of not returning to point A?’”

Chechowski said early planning is the key.

“You can always be proactive,” she said. “You don’t have to wait for your county officials to tell you to leave. You can always leave early.”

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About the Author:

Erik Sandoval joined the News 6 team as a reporter in May 2013 and became an Investigator in 2020. During his time at News 6, Erik has covered several major stories, including the 2016 Presidential campaign. He was also one of the first reporters live on the air at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.