What to do during a mandatory evacuation

Mon Jul 27 2020

When hurricanes or wildfires strike, your state may call for a mandatory evacuation to save lives and keep rescue workers out of harm’s way trying to rescue those who decided to stay behind.

While evacuation orders are fairly common during natural disasters, they can cause a lot of confusion. What are your obligations? And what are your rights during a mandatory evacuation order?

Let’s get some answers.

What is a mandatory evacuation?

A mandatory evacuation is civil order from your city or county meant to proactively save lives during a natural disaster or emergency. During a mandatory evacuation, first responders go to each neighborhood to help residents get to safety. Once an area is cleared, first responders are less likely to risk their own lives to save someone who is in the evacuation zone.

Even with mandatory evacuations in place, not everyone leaves. In fact, a study by the Journal of Transportation Engineering found mandatory evacuations only increased clearing folks out by six percent. That’s not much.

Still, officials have to make it clear that if you stay behind, you do so at your own risk.

Why some folks don’t evacuate

The decision to leave home during an emergency is not an easy one, and for some folks, it’s simply not accessible. For example, someone might not evacuate because they:

  • Have disabilities and don’t have assistance.
  • Didn’t hear the warnings.
  • Refuse to leave their pets.
  • Feel staying will help mitigate losses of the family home and belongings.
  • Don’t have a place to go or money for a hotel.
  • Survived previous similar disasters.
  • Worry it's too late to leave and they’ll be stuck in a gridlock.

While these reasons are valid, it’s important to get to safety if you can. And be sure to prepare for an emergency so you can safely take pets with you.

When do mandatory evacuations happen?

Widespread disasters, like hurricanes, wildfires, tsunamis, and floods, may trigger a mandatory evacuation order. Mandatory evacuation laws vary by state and not every evacuation is mandatory. There are two types of evacuations:

  1. Voluntary evacuation. As it sounds, this is a suggestion to get out of the area. These usually happen when a threat is likely but not imminent. By calling for voluntary evacuations, officials hope to reduce gridlock and last-minute panic.
  2. Mandatory evacuation. These are put in place when the danger is imminent. This may leave only hours (or less) to get your belongings and get out. By the time mandatory evacuations are called, the danger is a reality.

Even if you don’t voluntarily evacuate, prepare your home in case a mandatory evacuation is called. You don’t want to forget anything in the rush.

How the law affects your rights

If you don’t clear out during a mandatory evacuation, you could face civil or criminal penalties. Remember the goal is to save lives and when you refuse to evacuate, a rescue worker may be forced to be in a dangerous situation to try to save you.

In California, those who don’t follow a mandatory evacuation order could be charged with a misdemeanor penalty with up to a $1,000 fine and six months imprisonment. You can be penalized either for staying behind or for entering and staying in an evacuation zone. Anyone who willfully resists, delays, or obstructs a public officer or first responder may get a $1,000 fine and up to one year in prison.

Despite all the destruction Florida has experienced in recent years, it doesn’t have any criminal penalties for those who don't obey a mandatory evacuation. But that doesn’t mean staying behind doesn’t have consequences. If there is a problem during the evacuation or storm, help likely won’t arrive quickly.

How to safely evacuate your home

Preparation is everything when safely evacuating your home. Before you leave, get your house ready for the impending danger if you are safely able to. (If there’s a wildfire, get out as soon as possible.)

Preparing your home may mean:

  • Turning off the gas, water, and electric to prevent more damage if something catches fire or a pipe bursts.
  • Boarding up your doors and windows.
  • Clearing the yard of debris and storing or tying down patio furniture.

Make arrangements ahead of time so you know where you’re going. Get everyone, including pets, in the car and give yourself plenty of time to get out. Check local radio alerts to see where the least amount of traffic is. The later you decide to leave, the bigger chance that you’ll be stuck in gridlock with everyone else.

Let family members know where you are and where you are heading so you are accounted for. Keep phones charged but use them as little as possible to prevent overloading the system and failed calls.

Emergency evacuation checklist

If you live somewhere with a high probability of an evacuation order, plan ahead to make getting to safety as easy as possible. While stockpiling food, water, and other emergency supplies in your home is smart for a shelter in place scenario, but you also need items ready to go.

Keep a checklist in your emergency kit to make sure you don’t forget anything essential during an evacuation. A thorough checklist may include sections for important documents, emergency supplies, and home preparation. Remember that emergency supplies always include preparing for your pets, too.

This sample emergency evacuation checklist can help you prepare:

Copies of important documents

  • Driver’s license
  • House deed
  • Insurance declarations page
  • Medical records
  • Passports
  • Social security cards
  • Names and phone numbers of important contacts (in case the phone dies)
  • Home inventory

Grab-and-go kit (one for each person)

  • Food and water for three days
  • Emergency poncho
  • Emergency blanket
  • NOAA radio with batteries, solar, or hand crank
  • Phone charger and extra batteries
  • Flashlight
  • Medication for at least two weeks
  • First aid kit
  • Pet food and water for three days
  • Pet carrier, leash, toys, and medication

Home preparation

  • Tie down yard furniture or put indoors
  • Secure trash bins or put indoors
  • Turn off utilities
  • Clear yard debris and remove weak or dead branches
  • Sandbag home entryways (if expecting hurricane or flood)
  • Shutter windows and sliding glass doors
  • Move valuables in the house to higher floors or place on counters

When you do evacuate, make sure to lock your home to deter looters. Leave your home cautiously and safely. Know that everyone on the street is just as eager to get to their destination as you are. Be patient and know that you’ve done everything you can to prepare.

While you can’t avert every disaster, you can do the work to reduce your total loss. Make sure you contact your insurance agent to confirm your coverage is in force and what your limits are.

Keep in mind that changing coverage or buying a new policy when there is an impending danger is unlikely. Insurance companies place moratoriums on new policies or changes during these periods. If you are unsure about your current coverage options, give us a call.