By Xin Lu, Linus Bengtsson, and Petter Holme.
Most severe disasters cause large population movements. These movements make it difficult for relief organizations to efficiently reach people in need. Understanding and predicting the locations of affected people during disasters is key to effective humanitarian relief operations and to long-term societal reconstruction. We collaborated with the largest mobile phone operator in Haiti (Digicel) and analyzed the movements of 1.9 million mobile phone users during the period from 42 d before, to 341 d after the devastating Haiti earthquake of January 12, 2010. Nineteen days after the earthquake, population movements had caused the population of the capital Port-au-Prince to decrease by an estimated 23%. Both the travel distances and size of people’s movement trajectories grew after the earthquake. These findings, in combination with the disorder that was present after the disaster, suggest that people’s movements would have become less predictable. Instead, the predictability of people’s trajectories remained high and even increased slightly during the three-month period after the earthquake. Moreover, the destinations of people who left the capital during the first three weeks after the earthquake was highly correlated with their mobility patterns during normal times, and specifically with the locations in which people had significant social bonds. For the people who left Port-au-Prince, the duration of their stay outside the city, as well as the time for their return, all followed a skewed, fat-tailed distribution. The findings suggest that population movements during disasters may be significantly more predictable than previously thought.