Preparedness & Recovery

Get Out of Dodge

Irma evacuation: Should I stay or go?

by Eric Holdeman / September 8, 2017
Evacuees are helped as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. AP/David J. Phillip

Ordering an evacuation is not a simple task. One of the more complex aspects of an evacuation is getting people to follow the instructions that are given and then having the resources in place to support the movement of people out of a hazardous area.

Many have called into question the lack of an evacuation order by the city of Houston in advance of Hurricane Harvey, given the weather forecast for the storm and rainfall predictions. Now we see Florida taking a much more proactive stance toward ordering evacuations.

There are three major elements that go into ordering an evacuation of a geographical area. First and foremost, the hazard must be detected and understood by emergency managers and their elected officials. The negative impacts of what might happen should be the driving force in determining if an evacuation order is appropriate, or in the case of a chemical spill with toxic fumes in the air, it might be best to tell people to “shelter in place.”

Second, an evacuation order must be formulated and disseminated to the public. You cannot, in most circumstances, just say, “Leave.” A reason for the evacuation must be articulated in the evacuation order. People need to be instructed on any specifics, such as which direction to travel to avoid the hazard and how far they should travel to be far enough away to avoid being impacted.

Third, people must understand the evacuation order, heed it and follow it. In most incidents, people will not immediately follow the instructions of an evacuation order. Without prior information, they will do what sociologists call, “milling.” This is when a fire alarm is tripped, everyone looks around to see what other people are doing. Are they moving to the exits? Or is it business as usual and the alarm is being ignored. In today’s social media environment, I can see that people might take to Facebook to find out what their friends, relatives and neighbors are doing, to inform their actions.

For large, heavily populated metropolitan areas like Houston or Miami, telling tens of thousands of people to “get out of Dodge” requires significant amounts of planning, especially for institutions like hospitals, nursing homes and prisons. These mass care facilities have populations that may not be ambulatory or require other specific needs like security.

One aspect of the Hurricane Harvey situation was that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, was advising people to remain in place and ride out the storm. Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was telling people to evacuate. Having a mixed message like this confuses people and they are more likely not to evacuate if public authorities have not coordinated their messaging on evacuation.

Underlying all of the above is a general mistrust in government and potentially a history of being perceived as crying wolf for other hazardous situations that did not materialize. Additionally, putting thousands of people on the move can put them in danger. In Houston for Hurricane Rita in 2005, 24 seniors died on a bus that caught on fire while doing an evacuation.

Many people are quoted as saying they are staying put in their home so that they can protect their property from looters. One undeniable fact that has been researched time and again in post-disaster analysis is that crime actually goes down during a disaster. There may be isolated cases of looting or, in some cases, people foraging for food because they are trapped by a disaster, but crime itself goes down.

What people can do in advance of a disaster is to understand what hazards, either natural or technological, might impact them and their loved ones. Having a “mobile disaster kit” and a portable radio that you just grab and go if you need to move quickly will give you peace of mind and a few supplies when you must evacuate.

Last, in some states there is no such term as “mandatory evacuation.” You have the right to stay in your home, should you choose. Just don’t be surprised if first responders knocking on your door and hearing your intentions, ask you for the name of your next of kin.

Eric Holdeman, is director of the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience, and is a nationally known emergency manager and blogger. He was previously director of the King County Office of Emergency Management. You can read his blog at www.disaster-zone.com