Location Analytics Tracks Human Movement Before Hurricane Irma

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As Hurricane Irma barreled down on the state of Florida, residents prepared with trips to local hardware stores and grocery stores, but they also visited quick-service restaurants, wireless retailers, and check cashing businesses in droves, according to visitation data provided by Placed, a location analytics firm.

In the wake of an unusually active Atlantic hurricane season, Placed looked at offline consumer behaviors in the days leading up to Hurricane Irma, which slammed into Florida in September. The results, which Placed generated by looking at location and visitation data from residents in the path of the storm, were released just this morning. They paint a picture of predictability around unpredictable situations.

“While hurricanes can be unpredictable in terms of occurrence and path, these findings highlight the movement of people is more predictable in the days before and after landfall,” says David Shim, Placed’s founder and CEO. “By understanding the movement of people through location analytics, it gives organizations another dataset for planning and preparation.”

Placed’s data shows that in the areas impacted by Hurricane Irma, there were quantifiable increases in consumer visits to grocery stores (2.1x), gas or convenience stores (1.7x), and pharmacies in the days before the hurricane was expected to make landfall. Pet food and supplies retailers, sporting goods stores, and diet and nutrition businesses also saw increases in traffic, as residents prepared themselves and their pets for the potential of days without electricity.

Somewhat less expected were the increases in visits to restaurant locations before the hurricane hit. Placed found that quick-service restaurants (QSRs) saw up to 3.7x higher visitation rates by September 8th, as Florida residents began evacuating. Check cashing businesses saw upwards of 28x the visitation, a result that Shim attributes to banks being closed and power outages forcing cash-only transactions.

“A hypothesis for the uptick in quick-service restaurant visits is that consumers were dining at restaurants the days before landfall to conserve food supplies for post-Hurricane Irma,” Shim says.

Wireless retailers also saw between 1.5x and 4x the visitation rates before, during, and immediately following the hurricane.

Shim says power outages and cell service outages in Southern Florida had no material impact on Placed’s ability to collect location data from consumers.

In addition to tracking the business categories most frequently visited by consumers in the run-up to Hurricane Irma’s landfall in September, Placed also mapped “away from home” percentages by city and day to analyze evacuation rates. The firm found that residents left their homes on average two days before landfall. The average time to wait before returning home was three days after landfall, or five days after landfall for residents in areas with extended power outages.

Residents of West Palm Beach traveled on average 295 miles from their homes to avoid Hurricane Irma, while residents of Tallahassee traveled the shortest distance at 32 miles.

Placed’s analysis offers a glimpse into the behavioral patterns of consumers faced with evacuation before major storms. The information could be highly relevant not just for government organizations arranging aid during periods of extreme weather, but also for businesses looking for insights into how to best prepare for these types of events in the future.

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.



Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.