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4.2 Issues Regarding Evacuations

As part of the literature search, key issues such as the nature of the hazard, transportation objectives, infrastructure, coordination, communication, special needs, changing conditions, and impacts to transportation systems were identified for developing and implementing transportation evacuation plans. The purpose of this literature search was not to assess transportation evacuation plans, but to identify these issues, key findings, and lessons learned from the responses to evacuation incidents.

4.2.1 Nature of the Hazard

This section of the report provides information on the nature of the hazard, divided into information on the chaotic nature of evacuations, enforcement of evacuation orders, evacuation decisions, evacuation management, getting people to evacuate, impacts of and to transportation systems, knowledge of the hazard, nighttime evacuations, and response to hazards.

Some of the findings of this issue include:
  • Evacuations are chaotic.
  • Enforcement of evacuation orders is problematic.
  • Evacuation decisions are generally a local prerogative.
  • No-notice evacuations are difficult to manage.
  • It is difficult to get people to evacuate.
  • There are impacts from and to the transportation system.
  • Communities are aware of hazards that can lead to evacuations, but some events are so extraordinary to plan for.
  • Evacuations can occur in all conditions, including at night.
  • The responses to an advanced evacuation and a no-notice evacuation are similar. Chaotic Nature of Evacuations

Evacuations by their very nature tend to be chaotic and disruptive. For example, the Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) report Synthesis of Transit Practice 27: Emergency Preparedness for Transit Terrorism details the chaotic nature of the explosions that occurred at a fertilizer chemical plant in Toulouse, France, on September 21, 2001: “These explosions caused total panic throughout the city as everyone assumed it was a terrorist attack. There were vapors in the air that people feared might be toxic. Everyone tried to leave town at once. Regular telephone service did not work; only mobile phones were effective. Fire and police personnel had a very difficult time reaching the scene of the explosions, taking an hour to get there and organize the response.” Certainly, there was risk to the citizens of Toulouse and emergency officials due to the panic situation associated with this evacuation. Enforcement of Evacuation Orders

Enforcement of evacuation orders can prove to be problematic. For example, during the 1997 flood in Grand Forks, South Dakota, the American City and County article “Community Evacuation: Ensuring Safe Passage” reports that some residents would not leave even when evacuation was ordered: “While cities and counties have multiple tools to communicate with residents, getting the residents to listen is another matter. In any disaster, there are die-hards who refuse to leave their homes, and, as a result, cities and counties have to be ready to enforce their evacuation plans.” Bryon Sieber, Commander for Planning and Research at the Grand Forks North Dakota Police Department, notes in the article that the police had to physically remove residents from their homes—some because they were unable to move themselves, while others because they were simply stubborn and did not want to leave their homes. Ultimately, approximately 50,000 people from Grand Forks and surrounding communities fled the flood.

The Valley Times article “Train Carrying Chlorine Gas Derails: 8 Killed” details the chlorine gas derailment in Graniteville, South Carolina, on January 6, 2005: “Authorities ordered all 5,400 people within a mile of the crash to evacuate in the afternoon because chlorine was continuing to leak and the gas was settling near the ground as temperatures dropped. Authorities convinced all but about a dozen people in the area to evacuate, and set up shelters for evacuees.” Evacuation Decisions

Evacuation decisions (evacuation or shelter in place) generally lie with state and/or local government officials.

Who Determines Evacuation – Decisions on when to evacuate vary, but generally are the responsibility of state and/or local emergency officials. The article “Community Evacuation: Ensuring Safe Passage” reports that, in North Dakota, “only the governor can order a forced evacuation. A city ordinance enables our mayor to order an evacuation, but such an order won’t have full authority unless the governor backs it up. This is true in many states.”

During the South Carolina chlorine gas derailment, the New York article “8 Are Killed in Train Crash and Gas Leak” reported that Governor Mark Sanford declared a state of emergency for Aiken County, South Carolina, and officials told residents within a mile of the crash site to leave.

The article “Plant Fire Brings Call to Evacuate” details the chemical fire in Anderson, Indiana, on January 14, 2005: “Mayor Kevin Smith declared an emergency and ordered evacuations in a one-square-mile area around the Advanced Magnesium Alloys Corp. plant at 1820 East 32nd Street. Police spokesman Terry Sollars said 8,000 to 10,000 people may be affected.”

Shelter-in-Place – Shelter-in-place has been debated among the emergency management profession. During the literature search, the emphasis was not to seek out literature on this debate. However, in some areas prone to wildfires, shelter-in-place communities have been developed. Shelter-in-place means that occupants of a building deemed safe will remain in that building rather than be evacuated from it due to the hazard. The length of time of the shelter-in-place is determined by local authorities based upon the nature of the hazard. Often extra precautions are required for shelter-in-place such as turning off ventilation systems that could draw in air contaminated from the hazard.

In answer to the question “Why not evacuate?” a Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District brochure entitled Sheltering In Place During Wildfires states “Most wildfire-related deaths occur during evacuation efforts. Factors contributing to the high number of evacuation injuries and deaths include: heavy smoke, flying embers, panicked drivers and the sheer volume of cars and horse trailers on the road. During past wildfires, dark smoke and last minute evacuations have caused panicked evacuees to drive off roads and crash, trapping them in the fire’s path. Traffic collisions are also common during evacuation efforts. These incidents compromise the evacuation of other residents, as well as delay firefighters from protecting homes threatened by flames. For these reasons, it is safer for residents in shelter-in-place communities to stay inside their fire-resistive homes than risk evacuating on dangerous roadways.”

Use of Non-Traditional Shelters – Research has been conducted into the use of non traditional facilities such as nursing homes as public shelters. As reported on the NBC 17 Web site article “Study: Nursing Homes Could Be Safe Havens in Disasters”:

A nursing home may not seem like the safest harbor in a storm, but a researcher at RTI International says it might actually be an excellent place to provide shelter, storage and emergency medical treatment in a disaster. Lucy A. Savitz is a health services researcher at Research Triangle Institute, the nonprofit scientific research and technology development corporation. In a study she recently completed for the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Savitz found that nursing homes have the potential to contribute to their larger communities in times of public-health emergency. They can serve as alternative treatment centers, provide shelter to the displaced, and store hazardous material gear and other supplies, she said. Savitz said she decided to look at nursing homes’ possible role in emergency response plans because no one else had.

The NBC 17 Web site article also reported:

Susan Feeney of the American Health Care Association said nursing homes and elderly care centers in Florida took in senior citizens left homeless from the rash of hurricanes that ravaged the state last year, while New York first responders converted nursing homes into triage centers after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Feeney said the homes are a perfect refuge because of the combination of trained nurses, medical supplies, and possibly empty beds. The key is to include nursing home administrators in emergency response planning. “I think utilizing nursing homes in disaster planning would make sense for all parties involved,” she said. Involving the homes in planning would be good for their own sake, Savitz found. Her research also examined the homes' own emergency response plans and what special needs they might have if threatening situations arise. She found that most nursing homes have plans for natural disasters, but not for such man-made catastrophes as bioterrorism responses. Evacuation Management

Until September 11, 2001, US citizens had limited experience with terrorist attacks on American soil. However, after the 9/11 attacks, the Homeland Response article “Evacuation: What We Can Learn—and Cannot Learn—from Hurricanes” reports that “this is a new reality and it is recognized that these events have the potential to be difficult to manage. Evacuations from a weapon of mass destruction would be incredibly difficult to manage. While emergency planners and responders can train and practice together, any local evacuations will hinge on two largely unknown factors: the ability of officials to discern the nature of the threat and communicate an action plan within minutes, and the ability of ordinary citizens to follow that plan.”

February 7, 2006
Publication #FHWA–HOP-08-015