Survey Probes Psychological Impact Of Storm Evacuations

OCEAN CITY — A University of Pennsylvania study is attempting to delve into the psychological aspects of evacuating prior to predicted hurricanes, with a particular focus on Hurricane Irene, which forced a mandatory evacuation of Ocean City last August.

The study, led by Dr. Melissa Hunt, is essentially a continuation of a similar effort conducted following Hurricane Katrina and is attempting to apply the lessons learned from that study to the evacuations from Irene. The study is focusing on the decisions by residents in coastal areas to evacuate or not evacuate during Hurricane Irene, with a particular interest in the issue of a pet or pets in the house as it relates to an evacuation decision.

According to Hunt, prior to Hurricane Katrina, owning a pet was believed to be among the biggest factors in determining whether to evacuate. During that catastrophic storm, many residents in the coastal Gulf areas were forced to leave their pets behind or forcibly separated from their pets when they entered shelters or boarded rescue vehicles or other vessels.

Hunt’s latest study is currently soliciting volunteers from coastal areas up and down the east coast to complete a survey about their particular evacuation experience during Hurricane Irene in general, and delves into the issue of pet ownership as a determining factor in an evacuation decision. According to UPenn undergraduate psychology student Nick Rohrbaugh, who is working closely on the new study along with another student, Kelsey Bogue, there weren’t any plans in place for the evacuation of pets during Katrina, but federal laws changed as a result of that catastrophic storm.

“Many people lost their pets during the storm, or stayed home to watch their pets because they weren’t able to evacuate them,” Rohrbaugh said this week. “In fact, previous research has shown that people who own pets are much less likely to evacuate during a natural disaster than their non-pet-owning counterparts.”

Rohrbaugh reiterated much of the focus of the research is dedicated to the psychological aspects of evacuating and leaving a pet behind.

“Dr. Hunt found a strong link between losing one’s pet during a storm and experiencing symptoms of psychopathology including depression and acute stress,” he said. “Her study concluded that pet loss during a natural disaster can greatly add to the psychological trauma of the situation.”

The UPenn survey takes about 10 minutes and can be found at