Sep 12, 2020 - Science

How partisan media influences natural disaster response

Signs about mandatory evacuations in Florida before Hurricane Irma struck in 2017.
Signs about mandatory evacuations in Florida before Hurricane Irma struck in 2017. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A new study finds that partisan conservative media led to "hurricane skepticism" among Trump voters before Hurricane Irma hit Florida in September 2017, discouraging evacuations.

Why it matters: As the divided response to the coronavirus pandemic underscores, how we view the world politically is increasingly determining how we view the threat of natural catastrophes. With extreme weather on the rise, that's a dangerous recipe.

What's happening: In a study published Friday in Science Advances, researchers from UCLA examined evacuation patterns for the hurricane using GPS phone location data from each affected voting precinct, which allowed them to compare the behaviors of likely Clinton and Trump voters living as closely as 500 ft. apart.

  • They found Florida residents who voted for Donald Trump were between 10% and 11% less likely than residents who voted for Hillary Clinton to obey evacuation orders.
  • That partisan gap was not present during Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 or Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.

Context: The researchers theorize the partisan gap seen in Irma was due at least in part to conservative media pushing hurricane skepticism before the storm hit, casting doubt on official predictions of its severity and the need to evacuate.

  • They cite a broadcast from Rush Limbaugh a few days before the storm's arrival, where the conservative radio host blamed government officials and the media for overhyping the hurricane to "advance this climate change agenda."
  • While such "hurricane trutherism" existed in pockets before Irma, the researchers noted an unprecedented spike in Google searches for skeptic content in the days leading up to Irma.
  • Irma ultimately caused 123 deaths in Florida, and it was the most expensive storm in the state's history.

Of note: There is evidence that at least some people in Oregon are resisting evacuations from the state's wildfires in part because of baseless rumors that left-wing activists are setting the fires so they can loot abandoned houses.

The bottom line: It's frightening to realize a growing number of Americans trust partisan media over authoritative sources — even in matters of life and death.

Go deeper