Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

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.

Colorado High Park Fire
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.

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine. Stone writes on business and technology from Annapolis, Md. He also contributes to Government Technology magazine.

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