Office of Operations
21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies

Evacuating Populations With Special Needs

Routes to Effective Evacuation Planning Primer Series

Close up photo of a woman's hand on a wheelchair's wheel

Chapter 8: Re-Entry and Return to Readiness

Returning displaced evacuees to their homes should seem like a reverse of the original procedures. However, new challenges await those involved in transporting people displaced by disasters. For seniors, those with disabilities, and those with medical conditions, the return may take longer. These populations may face additional challenges. For example, while many people can return to their houses without electricity, those dependent on oxygen or using motorized equipment cannot do without electricity or a dependable generator. Those who depend upon in-home nursing care cannot do so if insufficient medical personnel have returned to continue the in-home support needed. While many people can navigate a house that has been damaged, someone who is blind or has a mobility limitation cannot easily traverse such conditions. Furthermore, replacement of lost items necessary for daily life, such as prescriptions, medical supplies, and even food for service animals, takes time.


Drivers should carry additional supplies during re-entry due to the potential for road hazards such as nails and other debris that may puncture tires or otherwise create difficult conditions. Flashlights, water, spare tires, temporary “flat tire” fixative, a shovel, and heavy-duty gloves may come in handy during re-entry.

Highway re-entry routes will be opened according to the needs of law enforcement and emergency management officials and in compliance with public safety and security requirements. Considerations also include the availability of reliable utilities, such as water, electric, gas, and gasoline for returning vehicles. If these are not available in affected areas and create a hazard to the returning individual, that person should not return, despite roadway re-openings. No one should be returned to areas that are not designated for re-entry.

Re-entry routes may be planned in advance to reverse steps taken during evacuation. Maintaining the same routes for evacuation and re-entry will help reduce confusion among dispatchers, drivers, and evacuees. Route maps should be placed in each vehicle and may be posted at shelters to assist people in locating appropriate transportation home.

As with evacuation procedures, dispatchers should track the following:

  • Driver names and contact information
  • Vehicle information (e.g., owner, number, license plate, type, capacity) and assignment
  • Route maps
  • Location of fuel and emergency repair facilities
  • Contact information for interpreters and translators
  • Evacuee information (where available through evacuation registries)
  • Contact information for liaisons and other people and agencies that will provide critical up-to-date information, including medical support personnel who cared for an evacuee prior to the evacuation
  • Names and contact information for people assisting with evacuations (e.g., mechanics, personnel at fuel depots, staging area workers, assistants traveling with vehicles).

Routes may be impacted by the event that required evacuation. For example, large amounts of debris from tornados and hurricanes or standing water from flooding could close planned re-entry routes. To avoid problems during transportation operations, dispatchers must maintain contact with drivers and individuals responsible for reporting road conditions. This will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and local procedures should be followed. Road conditions might be reported, for example, via ITS, local police, emergency management, or other sources. Regardless of the source, real-time knowledge of roadway conditions enables dispatchers to relay route diversions to drivers. Similarly, contact must be maintained in the event that a passenger must be diverted to address a medical emergency.

If single collection points were used for evacuation, such as a school or community center, re-entry may use the same drop-off points, assuming they are still in a safe condition. Those locations should be coordinated with local emergency management and law enforcement personnel in the planning process to ensure that people are not stranded at such drop-off points. Facilities that are evacuated, such as CRCFs, may require door-to-door return of evacuees to the CRCF.

Record keeping and tracking of vehicles, personnel, and passengers are as critical during re-entry as during the evacuation. Copies of all records should be sent to the EMA since they will be required to submit paperwork for federal, state, or other reimbursement.

Driver checklists for re-entry should mirror those used during evacuation, to include:

  • Driver ID (name, contact information) and credentials
  • Location of collection points and staging areas
  • Location of vehicle keys and back-up keys
  • Emergency contact for drivers and format of communication used by the drivers (e.g., CB radio, push-to-talk)
  • Dispatch contact and alternate contacts
  • Route maps and alternate route maps
  • Lists of evacuees per vehicle with their contact information
  • Shelter locations and types (e.g., general population, special medical needs, pet-friendly)
  • Specialized equipment required (e.g., wheelchair lifts)
  • Fuel locations
  • Instructions for breaks and shift changes
  • Local information sources (e.g., 211/511 systems, HAR locations)
  • Point-of-contact for rumor control (to verify road closures or shelter changes that may be announced by the media or reported by evacuees).

Each agency should also develop procedures to return property and personnel to normal operational mode, such as procedures for checking in vehicles, post-event maintenance checks, and accounting for all personnel.

Issues to Be Addressed Before Re-Entry

  • Conduct or collect daily situation status updates on road conditions, shelter locations, CRCFs, and movement of evacuees. This information can be obtained from shelter managers, the ARC, and EMA staff. Bear in mind:
    • Road conditions change daily. While emergency road operations usually push debris to the roadside, all roads will not necessarily remain open or should be used. Damage may have occurred to roads, bridges, and overpasses that will be revealed with time. Damage assessment processes may be ongoing for some time, and transportation agencies should be part of the information flow from the responsible agencies handling road conditions. These agencies may include the EMA, DOT, Public Works, and/or Engineering Departments.
    • Shelters close rapidly in some cases and often consolidate their populations. For example, schools used as shelters typically try to close as soon as possible, particularly when school is in session. Transportation agencies may be called upon to transfer evacuees from one site to another. Daily updates can be secured from shelter managers, the ARC, and the EMA. Mapping these locations can be very helpful; where available, agencies may wish to be placed on a distribution list for such maps. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, FEMA’s GIS section produced such maps daily and upon demand.
      • Shelter and CRCF managers should be asked for periodic updates on the people they have as the number and type of disabilities may change daily as people move in to and out of temporary accommodations. This information enables transportation agencies to plan for which types of vehicles to service and deploy to assist with special needs people during re-entry.
    • Transportation agencies may wish to conduct daily telephone briefings with shelter and CRCF managers hosting displaced populations.

During the period between the opening and closing of a shelter, transportation providers may undertake a number of tasks including:

  • Debrief staff regarding their evacuation experience and identifying their recommendations for improving re-entry procedures.
  • Participate in briefings with staff representing shelters, CRCFs, and other locations hosting evacuees to identify issues and concerns and address them before re-entry.
  • Implement staff recommendations for re-entry procedures.
  • Encourage staff to rest and recover from what may have been long work hours.
  • Clean vehicles including decontamination procedures as needed.
  • Check the functioning of equipment designed to support persons with disabilities including wheelchair lifts.
  • Repair damaged vehicles and/or conduct routine maintenance.
  • Restock key supplies and equipment for transportation including tires, gasoline, and communication materials, and replace batteries for flashlights, strobes, medical equipment, and other items.
  • Check the first-aid kit and replace items that were used.
  • Monitor and chart the number of requests for transportation assistance to identify ebbs and flows. Retain this information for post-disaster assessments and revisions to the operational plan.
  • Communicate closely with CRCFs to coordinate the return of people and their support network and medical equipment.


Transportation agencies must maintain contact with shelter and facility managers to know when the shelters are closing and will need transportation for evacuees.

Transportation agencies must maintain contact with shelter and facility managers to know when the shelters are closing and will need transportation for evacuees.

Communication for re-entry involves several parties. Moving people may involve taking them to new locations including their original home, a new shelter or facility, or a temporary housing unit. Communication will involve being in touch with shelter and facility managers and, through the managers, with the individual evacuees. It is advisable for transportation supervisors to visit facilities prior to scheduling pick-ups to identify potential problems and to visibly demonstrate their involvement in the re-entry process.

It is also possible that many evacuees may have gone to the homes of family, friends, or other hosts and may be out of the information/communication loop offered by shelters and other facilities. Consequently, it may be necessary to broaden the ways of communicating with evacuees prior to their return.

Re-entry communication strategies may include:

  • Ask shelter and facility managers to make announcements (written, verbal, and/or graphic) to their residents regarding transportation to their home
  • Post signs and provide information in appropriate languages, including Braille, on re-entry transportation procedures
  • Send transportation messages out via TTY, Web sites, e-mail, text messaging, pagers, and other devices used within the local community
  • Notify the media to disseminate information about transportation through radio, television, closed-captioning, and public service announcement (PSAs)
    • To increase information dissemination, use people from the impacted communities. Use senior citizens, people with disabilities, and people who speak local languages to make public announcements on radio, television, and other communication media
  • Use VMS on highways to convey information on transportation availability
  • Develop PSAs or other types of messages with the following information:
    • Locations for pick-ups and the types of accommodations being made (wheelchairs, service animals)
    • Times for pick-ups
    • Estimated time to travel home
    • Where to get additional information
    • How to schedule individual pick-ups outside of collection points
  • Maintain communications while en route to the home location, being especially sure to notify reception centers, facilities, and others of the expected time of arrival and any delays en route
  • Monitor conditions of people on the vehicle and be ready to activate emergency procedures if necessary including first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), or other medical procedures
  • Maintain awareness of the geographic locations while traveling and knowing the location of the nearest medical facilities and contact numbers for highway service and law enforcement patrols and local first responders.


Ideally, all service animals will have been kept with their owners or handlers during evacuations and will be transported with them on the return trip. This is important for the animal's health and safety, as well as the well-being of the owner or handler. While the transportation provider is not responsible for reuniting separated service animals and owners, reasonable effort should be made to accommodate reunions to assist the individual and service animal in re-entry and recovery. Items necessary for the service animal must be accommodated as well including food, water, medications, and other needs.

Legislation, as discussed in Chapters 2 and 7, requires transportation providers to accommodate service animals in any situation. This fact must be clearly communicated to all drivers, dispatchers, and other personnel that may encounter a service animal or who plan for re-entry transportation. Be aware that you may need to transport people who are allergic to animals separately from people who have service animals. Therefore, it will be important to find out whether any people have allergies and to make transportation plans accordingly. This may mean scheduling several trips and cleaning vehicles so animal dander does not cause a reaction in those people who are allergic.

Post-Event Actions

Once the entire operation has ended, transportation agencies must take advantage of what they have learned to improve future evacuation support operations. Preferably, within a week of the end of operations, agencies should conduct an after-action debriefing. It is usually a good idea to hold such a forum with a professional, skilled facilitator who will ensure that:

  • All have a voice in the process and are not shy about offering their insights.
  • All issues are addressed fully and thoughtfully.
  • Participants focus on both positive and negative actions and outcomes, as well as suggested corrections.
  • Participants do not feel intimidated or pressured to say something or to silence themselves about events that happened.

Agencies may wish to conduct internal debriefings and to participate in other debriefings as well. The external events may include post-event analyses done by the local EMA, the ARC, and other facilities that sheltered evacuees. It is advisable to ensure that those with disabilities, seniors, CRCFs and shelter managers, contracted transportation companies, and others have a presence at these events, as they will bring additional insights useful for improving future operations.

The transportation agency is a crucial partner in the process of planning for evacuation and must take the post-disaster event time period as an opportunity to strengthen and enhance its partnership with those at risk and those who work to keep the community safe.

Ideally, the debriefing process will result in revisions to the operational plan. Each section of the plan should be re-considered so that improvements can be made. Additional items may be added to checklists, and procedures may be altered. As such, corresponding training and exercises will be adjusted accordingly. Planners should also stay current on new technologies and procedures that become available and read the literature and best practices on persons with disabilities, seniors, medical evacuees, and transportation. In addition, updates to registries, sheltering procedures, and local plans should be monitored, and the transportation operational plan should be updated accordingly.

Annual updates should be made to the plan including:

  • Convening a planning task force that includes agencies likely to be involved in transportation beyond the agency’s role such as:
    • The populations likely to be evacuated
    • Shelter operators
    • Facility managers
    • Transportation contractors
    • Law enforcement, EMS, fire and rescue, and emergency management personnel
  • Assessing each section of the plan and updating as necessary, ensuring that the plan is consistent with what local planners in other agencies expect and what individual evacuees may need.

Transportation agencies should also participate in and offer training related to evacuation planning and operations. This may include training staff on communications, lifting, equipment, and emergency procedures, and working with staff from shelters, CRCFs, reception centers, and others involved in transportation for evacuations.

If not already completed, an inventory of vehicles, equipment, materials, and supplies should be undertaken so that these items can be restocked prior to the next evacuation. Standby contracts could be arranged with private sector companies to ensure the availability of transportation equipment and supplies when needed.