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Where People Went Before, During, and After Hurricane Laura, Amid Pandemic

Population movement data helps public disaster relief work, which is even more critical during a pandemic.


Hurricane Laura

Movement between areas on August 25, as seen from Facebook mobility data, shows how the cities actually cluster together. (Direct Relief)

Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana and Texas on August 27 with winds reaching 150 miles per hour, matching the strongest hurricane to ever hit Louisiana, 1856’s Last Island Hurricane, according to the National Hurricane Center.

At least 16 people were killed by the storm, half of them due to carbon monoxide poisoning from generators, according to the Associated Press. Hundreds of thousands of people were left without power as of Sunday and 87 water systems serving 150,000 people remain offline, according to the Monroe News-Star. Widespread property damage has been reported in Lake Charles, La., and surrounding areas, even as the full extent of the storm’s destruction is still being assessed.

Direct Relief, as in past natural disasters, is working with Facebook’s Data for Good team to analyze the movement of populations prior to and following the storm’s landfall.

Comparing mobility patterns to a baseline figure allows Direct Relief and other disaster response agencies to glean useful information, including whether evacuation orders were heeded, which areas received higher concentrations of evacuees, and which communities saw more people sheltering in place.

If people are unable to evacuate an area or have no access to transportation, they may be at higher risk of a storm’s direct impacts.

Movement patterns also become critical to determine where aid should be directed for maximum impact. The maps below showcases movement data, and where people are leaving from, and arriving to.

“The main takeaway from these is that on August 25 and August 26, movement is almost entirely outward (blue dots) from Lake Charles – with the 26th being a much greater total movement and a much wider landscape of locations to which people are moving to. On the 27th – landfall of Hurricane Laura – movement is sharply curtailed across the region. From August 28 to August 30, you can see steady rates of increase plus a steady increase in incoming movement (orange dots),” said Andrew Schroeder, vice president of Research and Analysis at Direct Relief.

Also from the Facebook data – again as of 8/25 which is my most recent date – average rate of decrease relative to baseline throughout the storm affected area was 10.6% -- with the lowest areas registering a decrease of 32.1% (Direct Relief)
Map showing that the average rate of population decrease, relative to baseline, throughout the storm-affected area was 10.6%, with the lowest areas registering a decrease of 32.1%. Blue dots represent outgoing populations movement, orange dots represent incoming movement. Data sourced from Facebook on August 25, 2020. (Direct Relief)
Population movement in storm-impacted areas on August 26, based on Facebook data (Direct Relief)
Population movement in storm-impacted areas on August 27, based on Facebook data (Direct Relief)
Population movement in storm-impacted areas on August 28, based on Facebook data (Direct Relief)
Population movement in storm-impacted areas on August 29, based on Facebook data (Direct Relief)
Population movement in storm-impacted areas on August 30, based on Facebook data (Direct Relief)
Percentage change in population over time, based on Facebook data from storm-impacted areas (Direct Relief)

Tracking a Hurricane in a Pandemic

The historic storm comes amid the Covid-19 pandemic and further complicates both sheltering and relief efforts, due to social distancing guidelines, making mobility information even more crucial.

Direct Relief’s Research and Analysis team has created maps based on the latest data to show which areas are facing the highest Covid-19 case counts, access to transportation, and where people are going to.

The map below reveals counties with the most number of active Covid-19 cases in the hurricane’s path.

Covid -- map of counties with the most number of active Covid cases in the hurricane path -- and graph of the ranking of the total number of those cases. (Direct Relief)
Map of counties in the hurricane path with the highest number of active Covid-19 cases.

The storm’s destructive forces pose additional challenges for first responders and residents already reeling from a global pandemic, and also complicate emergency orders like evacuations, shelter openings, and movement patterns that could have impacts on the spread of the virus.

Below are the number of total Covid-19 cases by county, with Calcasieu Parish recording the most cases, followed by Caddo Parish. Emerging news reports recorded damage in both of those parishes as a result of Hurricane Laura.

Graph of the ranking of the total number of those cases. (Direct Relief)

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