Find Your Passion: Shelter from the Storm

Student Studies the Trail of Storm Evacuees and their Pets

Courtney Thompson
A longtime animal lover, Thompson surveyed rest areas along evacuation routes to learn about people’s decisions regarding their pets. (Photo by Jeff Hanson)

By Cara Cramer

When University of Alabama student Courtney Thompson walked into a highway rest area in Louisiana, she had no idea it would change her future.

Hundreds of families were huddled together, stranded away from their homes and hoping the damage caused by the hurricane from which they fled was not extensive.

Thompson saw the family units were not only composed of people, but also their beloved pets: cats, dogs, hamsters and even a snake or two. Some of the pet carriers were nicer than the evacuees’ own luggage, she said.

Thompson, a senior from Cullman, traveled to rest areas in Mississippi and Louisiana prior to the landfall of Hurricane Gustav with Drs. David Brommer and Jason Senkbeil, assistant professors of geography at UA. She surveyed evacuees at interstate rest stops in both states and learned about their decisions on whether or not to bring their household pets. She also gathered information on what meteorological variables most impacted their evacuation decisions.

Courtney Thompson Thompson created a map with graphics of the rest areas surveyed. (Jeff Hanson)

“I would ask them if they had a pet and whether they brought it with them, the reason they evacuated and how many pets they had, among other things,” Thompson said. A total of 249 surveys were partially or completely answered by evacuating residents of southern and coastal Louisiana.

Data were collected along two major evacuation routes within the 48-hour window prior to landfall of Hurricane Gustav in the southern and coastal regions of Louisiana (generally south of Interstate 10). Results revealed a majority of evacuees with pets chose to include them in their evacuation plans, highlighting not only the significance household pets play in making timely evacuation decisions, but also recent changes to more friendly pet policies in evacuation centers following the devastating hurricanes of 2005.

Thompson found that most hotels were now accepting pets, as long as they were in cages, a direct result of the devastating loss of property in Hurricane Katrina.

Results show that most families surveyed in the zip codes analyzed had pets they included in their evacuation. The areas of Houma and New Orleans had the largest percentage of evacuees surveyed who did include their pet in evacuation.

Once the data were compiled, Brommer helped to create a series of maps and graphics of the areas that they travelled. “Courtney and I developed a few different methods to evaluate the data based on what three-digit zip code region the evacuees were from. We used a geographical information system to analyze, map and interpret our results,” Brommer said.

Courtney Thompson
Thompson’s research indicates more people are evacuating with their pets. (Jeff Hanson)

A telecommunication and film major with a minor in geography, Thompson had always dreamed of becoming a broadcast journalist. After working in research and seeing how she could ultimately impact people in the future, she now plans to continue her education in geography with a master’s degree.

“Now that I see that research like this can make a difference in the future, I want to pursue a career in it. I want to be able to do something about this, whether it be setting up a new government agency or putting in standards for hotels to follow during evacuations,” Thompson said.

Brommer indicated he has high expectations for Thompson’s research.

“The tools we used for analysis and the experience Courtney gained during the data collection really helped her understand the importance of this type of research and whetted her appetite to answer questions like the ones we were trying to address. She wants to help improve the evacuation process during hurricanes and has a passion for research,” Brommer said.

Not only did Courtney gain research knowledge, she connected with many of the families she talked with. She was surprised at how willing they were to help her and how open they were with their stories.

“The most touching stories were from the families that grew up dealing with evacuations. They told me they got used to ‘up and leaving’ their house and belongings and expecting it not to be back when they return. They said the most important thing was what they had with them -- their family,” Thompson said.

Thompson hopes to visit future hurricane sites to compare her research taken in Louisiana and to pursue similar research in her graduate study.

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Cara Cramer is a senior at The University of Alabama with a major in public relations and minors in political science and communication studies. She is from Dothan.

This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.