Public Health to Public: In an Emergency, Heed the Warnings to Evacuate

Oct 30, 2012, 7:54 PM

While post-tropical-cyclone storm Sandy is still packing some punches in several states, other communities are beginning to clean up, and unearth the lessons learned. One critical lesson: how to get more people to pay attention to evacuation warnings in the next emergency. Many city and state leaders urged community members to heed warnings to evacuate before Sandy hit, to help protect themselves and reduce the risk for first responders. Yet at least hundreds of people, likely more, stayed at home to ride out the storm. Some died and others had to be rescued in in dangerous situations, or after suffering through the worst of the storm. NewPublicHealth asked James G. Hodge, Jr., J.D., LL.M, Director, and Network for Public Health Law, Western Region, about the legal issues surrounding orders to evacuate in an emergency.

NewPublicHealth: Are there laws that require people to heed orders to evacuate? 

James Hodge: Yes, many states’ emergency laws include authorization for mandatory evacuations of affected zones, but enforcement is tough to accomplish. As a result, evacuation orders may be issued, but citizens may choose not to follow them.

NPH: And are there legal consequences for people who don't heed the orders? 

James Hodge: Yes, in some instances. Not only may they place themselves in peril, government may not be legally obligated to rescue affected citizens who remained in place especially if conditions will not allow for safe and effective response efforts. Issues like these arise in nearly every disaster with advance warnings, including hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. Regrettably, some citizens who choose to remain in harm’s way may be negatively impacted. This is a terrible and avoidable consequence of major disasters. Ultimately, governmental efforts to force evacuations, however, are resisted by a minority of persons who are unwilling to leave for varied reasons. Emergency responders and public health authorities seek to assist them to protect their life and health, but are not legally obligated to do so when conditions do not allow for their own safety.

NPH: What’s your best public health guidance for people facing emergencies such as hurricanes?

James Hodge: When authorities issue an order to evacuate, do it! The risks you take in the face of these disasters are too great not to. Safe and effective evacuation is your best option.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.