Emergency Managers’ Best Practices for Evacuating Communities

Four emergency managers share what they learned during the heat of the moment and their go-to strategies during an evacuation.

by / August 6, 2012
Photo courtesy of The Denver Post/AAron Ontiveroz

With wildfires displacing tens of thousands in Colorado and other Western states, evacuation is on the minds of many in the emergency management community. In Colorado, what’s being called the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history forced the evacuation of more than 35,000 residents and destroyed nearly 350 homes. Emergency Management magazine talked to four experts about the best practices and lessons learned from their experiences involving large evacuations.

Mark Sloan

Emergency Management Coordinator, Harris County, Texas

When Hurricane Ike struck in 2008, Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Sloan directed the evacuation of some 250,000 Harris County, Texas, residents. From the surrounding jurisdictions, some 400,000 more passed through his territory.

Break it Down

Geographic subtleties helped Sloan speed the exodus. Rather than broadcast evacuation orders based on general areas, he and his team issued alerts by ZIP code.

“People can look at a ZIP code and know instantly whether when they are in harm’s way. You can’t just say, ‘Everyone east of Fourth Street,’” he said. “You have to make it clear exactly who needs to evacuate and who needs to shelter in place. The public needs to be educated so that you don’t have a mass surge of people who did not need to leave.”

State Support

It helps to have backing from higher up. Just a month before Rita, Texas enacted a law giving state support to mandatory evacuations. The law has helped Sloan build a more robust system.

Take, for instance, the evacuation routes. Without state authority, emergency managers were obliged to keep evacuees on a single channel, causing people to run out of gas and leaving inadequate support for stranded motorists. With legal authority in place, planners now have greater latitude in their ability to keep traffic flowing with designated routes, state-supplied fuel stations and first responders on hand to deal with accidents and medical crises.

Communications Tools

Sloan has stepped up communications since Ike. “In the heat of battle, it became extremely difficult to communicate with so many jurisdictions quickly and effectively. Not everybody was near their phone or watching their email,” he said.

Now his office has new gear in place, including its own radio frequency on 800 MHz radios and the ability to send direct messages through ham radios in the operations center. “The more redundant ways I can communicate, the better off we all are,” Sloan said.

Robert Latham

Director, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency

Robert Latham led the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency through Hurricane Katrina. After a hiatus, he returned to the job as executive director of the agency in January 2012.

Make it Personal

When Katrina blew in, people sat on their hands. They’d cleared out for Dennis and Ivan not long before, and many felt hurricane burnout. Latham’s solution: a push from high in the ranks.

With the population largely dug in, Latham asked Max Mayfield, who was director of the National Hurricane Center at the time, to get on television and urge people to move. With virtually no action on Saturday, people hit the road in droves on Sunday after Mayfield’s appearance.

The success of the high-profile appearance taught Latham the value of getting out there as a leader to make the case. “I am probably going to spend several days on the coast before a potential landfall of a hurricane,” he said. “If I can be down there for several days, talking to local officials and talking to the local media, I will be making better use of my time than if I were here in my office.”

Close to Home

Katrina taught Latham the value of proximity. “People have to have some comfort in knowing where they are going,” he said. That comfort level is created by offering relocation close to home.

The jurisdiction has increased by 28,000 its original stock of 30,000 to 40,000 safe rooms, with more on the way. “All these are closer to where people live,” he said.

“People are hesitant to travel very far when they evacuate, so if we invest the money in places that are closer to them, they will feel that they can return home quicker. Now we can say, ‘You don’t have to travel five or six hours. We can put you someplace safe within a couple of hours, max.’”

Power to the People

Despite successes, Latham has come to see that government can only do so much. The populace at large must be drawn into the process.

“We give them the information, we tell them what the risks and hazards are, we tell them to develop an evacuation plan, but I don’t think people are having those discussions,” he said. “We have to get the public to do those simple things that they can do to actually save their lives.”

How to do it? “I always use Israel as an example: From the time a child enters preschool all the way through college, they know how to put on protective masks. They know what to do when an air raid siren goes off. Until we start building protective measures into our schools, we are not going to overcome this.

“We need to get to the children who then get to the parents, and then the parents will do something.”

Get Creative

Sometimes a crisis calls for creative thinking.

Two days after the storm, Latham entered a scene in which bodies were piling up in a parking lot as managers onsite awaited the arrival of a refrigerated trailer for use as a temporary morgue.

Frustrated, Latham located an ice vendor’s trailer nearby and bought it on the spot. “That was not in any rule book anywhere. That was not in my job, and it was something I never expected I would have to do. But sometimes you’ve just got to do something. When there is no textbook solution, you’ve just got to be able to figure it out.”

Jeff Suggs

Emergency Management Coordinator and IT Director, La Porte, Texas

Under the guidance of Emergency Management Coordinator and IT Director Jeff Suggs, La Porte, Texas, saw 25,000 individuals evacuate during Hurricane Rita and another 10,000 during Hurricane Ike.

Watch the Schools

Suggs said his biggest challenge may well have been the timing of school closings.

Schools need at least a day’s lead time in order to close, yet the storm’s path wasn’t clear at that time. Nor did it make sense to simply shut them down and order the evacuation without full knowledge, in effect stalling the local economy.

“The schools are our babysitters, so to speak. If you are sending information home that the school district is not going to open tomorrow, then you are not going to have your workforce out there,” he said. “You want to pay $8 for a gallon of gas? Put a Category 3 hurricane in Houston and close the schools.”

For every storm, school closings must be a balancing act: Watch the weather, talk to partners, work with the schools and ultimately take your best shot. “There is not any one trick to doing this,” Suggs said.

Internal Partners

A successful evacuation requires knowing who must go, and that demands partnerships — not just in the planning phase, but also throughout the crisis.

Emergency medical services feeds information to Suggs’ office throughout an event, identifying those who need help. The State Department of Aging and Disability Services polls every nursing home in the region to ensure that these residences remain in communication with local officials, who in turn feed information back to Suggs’ office.

“Everyone must be able to have a frank and open discussion about what’s taking place in their jurisdiction,” Suggs said. “If I don’t have those internal partners working, I am never going to have relationships with our external partners.”

Cast a Wide Net

It’s not enough to reach out via traditional media. Success comes through outreach via all media.

“You have to embrace every tool you possibly can,” Suggs said. “We know there’s a certain segment of the population that only wants social media. We know there’s a segment that only wants a reverse call. We know that some people will only call an 800 number. So we have all those, and we have email. You need to build those redundancies or else you are going to miss someone.”

Technology helps. Suggs makes use of Blackboard Connect, a communication tool that helps officials reach out through voice, text, email, RSS, TTY/TDD devices and other means. La Porte officials sent 268,000 Blackboard messages during Hurricane Ike.

Joseph F. Bruno

Commissioner, New York City Office of Emergency Management

In August 2011, with Hurricane Irene blowing in hard, Commissioner Joseph F. Bruno of the New York City Office of Emergency Management put the wheels in motion to evacuate 370,000 individuals from low-lying parts of the city.

Keep Mum on Shelters

It does no one any good to broadcast the locations of shelters. People tend to flock to the closest address, even though that facility may not have adequate food, security or other support mechanisms.

To direct traffic to the appropriate facilities, Bruno instructed his team to keep the locations of shelters off the maps, freeing their hands to fill spaces thoughtfully and manage the influx appropriately.

Show Them the Money

For the public to buy into an evacuation plan, people need to trust their leaders. For that to happen, the words spoken on TV must be borne out by facts on the ground.

“If the mayor says, ‘I have ordered the evacuation of health-care facilities,’ then at 8 o’clock the next morning, if you go by a nursing home, you should see ambulances lined up and people coming out. When people see that occurring, then they see that this is serious,” Bruno said. “If we say the [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] is shutting down, all of that is happening right at the time when the mayor is speaking to them.”

Cut the Red Tape

To clear out the nursing homes, Bruno asked city and state health officials to gather in the EOC. “We wanted to put together the two entities most involved in health care,” he said. “We wanted to ensure that we would have coordination between the different entities.”

That close proximity came in handy when it became necessary to generate waivers that would allow receiving facilities to go above their usual head count. “This is not a time for bureaucracy. This is the time to have the person there who can make that decision.”

Unified Messaging

In the midst of a crisis, everyone on the emergency side needs to be speaking the same language, in words that are “strong, firm, but not alarming,” Bruno said.

For Hurricane Irene, Bruno convened a joint information center that included the mayor’s office, press officers of some 40 agencies and communications professionals from all the first responder agencies. The mayor took the lead with a press conference 51 hours before landfall.

“He provided a realistic view of the possibilities: That it is difficult to know where a storm will go, that it is difficult to predict intensity, but that in the worst-case scenario, this could be a very severe storm,” Bruno said.

Then that message was repeated by all the agencies involved. Thanks to the mass gathering of communicators, all were able to send the same signals to their respective audiences, creating a uniformity of message that helped keep the public on track as the evacuation got under way.

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.