Environment

Here's What Americans Want to Know When They Google About Hurricanes

From evacuation preparations to finding gas, residents in the paths of Harvey and Irma sought answers online.

Photo Credit: one photo/Shutterstock

In recent weeks, as two storms of historical proportions have threatened America’s shores, millions have sought answers from a familiar source: the internet. Searching everything from preparation suggestions to essential survival tips, Americans in the path of hurricanes Harvey and Irma have turned to Google for guidance.

In this project, we analyzed search volume data from Google Trends to study what those affected by these storms wanted to know most. We also compared these results with search activity related to other hurricanes in recent years. Our findings reveal the concerns of citizens faced with impending disaster and the scope of their anxiety about the possible devastation to come.

Hurricane History

Over the last several years, a cyclical pattern is evident: We see a spike in searches during hurricane season each year. While the season officially extends from June through November, searches typically spike in August or September of each year.

Our largest spikes related to major storms, many of which resulted in lasting devastation. Hurricane Ivan corresponded with the search spike in September 2004, just as Hurricane Katrina explained the peak in September 2005. Hurricane Sandy represented an exceptionally late search surge in 2012, with queries peaking when the storm reached the American Northeast in late October. Hurricane Matthew struck in the same month in 2016, prompting an even greater number of searches.

No month on record matched the projected search volume for September 2017, however.Between searchers inquiring about the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and those anticipating Hurricane Irma’s wrath, the cumulative search volume promised to be unprecedented due to the unfortunate progression of these closely timed storms.

Evaluating Evacuation

Regarding those considering evacuation, search volumes coincide with some surprising storms. Hurricane Irene seems to have prompted the most searches of this kind in 2011, perhaps because it incited evacuation orders as far north as New York City after initially devastating North Carolina. Hurricanes Sandy and Matthew also caused millions of evacuation searches in 2012 and 2016, respectively.

Interestingly, South Carolina saw the greatest proportion of searches of any state, surpassing logical suspects such as Florida. Perhaps the Palmetto State is searching because of ambivalence: While other states are more often directly in the path of Atlantic storms, South Carolina residents can also face the real possibility of danger. Accordingly, the state’s governor raised the prospect of evacuation in declaring a state of emergency as Hurricane Irma approached.

Pondering Preparation

As we focus more closely on recent weeks, we see a dramatic disparity in hurricane prep searches among the two states most directly in hurricanes Harvey and Irma’s respective paths: Florida and Texas. While Harvey struck Texas on August 25, 2017, searches saw only a minor spike in the days before. However, searches spiked precipitously in the days following the announcement of Hurricane Irma’s path toward Florida.

These stats are supported by the relative volume of searches in each state, with Florida far surpassing Texas on this count. Perhaps the coverage of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation prompted an additionally wary response from Floridians confronting a threat of their own.

Observing Hurricane Irma

Hurricane Irma’s path remained unpredictable during much of the period above, causing many to observe the storm’s track. Perhaps a divergence in the projections of major models kept Americans searching the latest trajectory as well.

Florida was predictably most interested in Hurricane Irma, but both Carolinas searched the hurricane’s track quite often as well. With the storm projected to head farther up the East Coast in many models, they have good reason to pay close attention to its predicted path.

Considering Coverage

Faced with the threat of unprecedented rains, Gulf Coast residents sought to supplement their home insurance coverage as Harvey approached, according to our findings. Louisiana — which is no stranger to the devastating floods following Hurricane Katrina — was particularly likely to search for flood coverage, followed by Texas. Floridians responded much the same as Hurricane Irma approached.

The future of federal flood insurance provisions remains uncertain, with the National Flood Insurance Program set to expire in September. Many experts project Harvey’s wake will push the program more into debt, further imperiling its renewal.

Searching for Gas

While Hurricane Harvey caused gas shortages across some parts of Texas in late August, fuel flowed again by the first week of September. Unfortunately for Floridians, the scarcity shifted immediately to their state, with hundreds of stations running out of gas in the run-up to Hurricane Irma’s arrival.

Our findings indicate an inconsistent pattern of searches for gas, with some spikes appearing at seemingly odd times, such as 5am on Sept. 6, 2017. With as much as one-fourth of the nation’s gas refining industry affected by Hurricane Harvey, perhaps searchers had good reason to wake up early in pursuit of a place to fill up.

Finding Expert Answers

We hope these findings reflect the scale of concern these hurricanes have prompted for the families affected and America as a whole. At insuranceQuotes, our team is wishing everyone touched by these storms a safe and speedy recovery. For years, we have worked to inform and protect Americans by helping them obtain the coverage they need at a price they can afford. See how we can help you, too, with coverage that will weather both disasters and life’s daily concerns.

Methodology

We studied Google Trends data for the search terms described above over a range of time. Our results reflect searches conducted within the United States rather than international figures.

Infographics courtesy InsuranceQuotes.

Eric Snapper is a writer of environmental topics based in South Florida.

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