Right Wing Media Introduced 'Hurricane Skepticism' Just Before Hurricane Irma Devastated Florida

Florida residents who likely voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election were up to 11 percent less likely to evacuate their homes over 2017's Hurricane Irma than those who likely voted for Hilary Clinton, according to a study.

An estimated 45 percent of people in Florida included in the study who likely voted Clinton evacuated their homes, versus 34 percent of Trump voters, the paper published in the journal Science Advances found. The team believes the influence of so-called "hurricane skepticism" among high profile conservative figures may have contributed to an apparent reluctance to evacuate.

The researchers used GPS data from 2.7 million smartphone users in Florida and Texas to estimate the date and time that individuals evacuated their homes for at least 24 hours, if at all, around the time of Hurricane Irma and others of the 2017 season, including Harvey. They also looked at 2016 U.S. presidential election results at a precinct level.

donald trump, hurricane irma, getty
President Donald Trump waves at Southwest Florida International Airport September 14, 2017 in Fort Myers, Florida. Trump visited storm-ravaged Florida after Hurricane Irma whipped through the region. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The authors compared the behaviors of likely Clinton and Trump voters living within 150 meters of one another. They also looked at dismissals of hurricane advisories in conservative media, and whether these may have affected whether people evacuated their homes.

According to data cited by the authors, the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, including Harvey, Irma, and Maria, was the most expensive on record, causing more than $250 billion of damage, and killing hundreds of people. Hurricane Irma was the most powerful hurricane of 2017, hitting category 5, and wind speeds of up to 180 miles per hour.

The authors wrote the "politicization of hurricanes spiked in 2017 when conservative media outlets claimed that hurricane warnings were another example of 'fake news,'" the authors wrote, complicating disaster management.

They gave the "notable" example of conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh questioning the severity of Hurricane Irma and the motivation of government advisories, stating on September 5, 2017: "[t]here is a desire to advance this climate change agenda, and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it."

According to the authors "Limbaugh linked existing conservative skepticism of climate science with appeals to ignore official warnings of Irma's severity as landfall approached." The commentator evacuated from his Palm Beach home three days later, the researchers said.

"Before this, only occasional instances of 'hurricane trutherism' existed on right-wing blogs, making comparisons before and after Limbaugh's statements a useful study of partisan effects on high-stakes behavior," the authors wrote.

"In the days leading up to Irma's landfall in Florida, we observe that the peak difference in overall evacuations between Clinton and Trump precincts coincides with the peak in Google search trends for 'Rush Limbaugh hurricane'" they wrote, adding: "Together, these results support our findings of the Limbaugh-driven emergence of hurricane skepticism."

The authors also noted that on September 10, 2017, conservative pundit Ann Coulter also questioned the severity of Irma, on Twitter. She tweeted : "HURRICANE UPDATE FROM MIAMI: LIGHT RAIN; RESIDENTS AT RISK OF DYING FROM BOREDOM."


— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) September 10, 2017

The team said the differences in evacuations were not explained by variables like distances to the coastline income, or education level.

The study comes against a backdrop of mistrust of scientific evidence and government guidelines is increasingly linked to political affiliation, the authors said.

"While it is beyond the scope of our analysis to determine optimal evacuation behavior for every resident at risk of hurricane harm, the arrival of partisan differences in evacuation rates is alarming," they said.

The study had several limitations, the authors acknowledged, including that they used smartphone data, and therefore may have missed populations like older residents. They also defined evacuation as leaving one's home for 24 hours or more, but it is could be the case that someone left their home but stayed in a high-risk area.

Newsweek has contacted Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter for comment.