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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Federal Evacuation Policy: Issues for Congress

Bruce R. Lindsay
Analyst in American National Government

When government officials become aware of an impending disaster, they may take steps to protect citizens before the incident occurs. Evacuation of the geographic area that may be affected is one option to ensure public safety. If implemented properly, evacuation can be an effective strategy for saving lives. Evacuations and decisions to evacuate, however, can also entail complex factors and elevated risks. Decisions to evacuate may require officials to balance potentially costly, hazardous, or unnecessary evacuations against the possibility of loss of life due to a delayed order to evacuate. 

Some observers of evacuations, notably those from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, claim evacuations pose unique challenges to certain segments of society. From their perspective, special-needs populations, the transit-dependent, and individuals with pets faced particular hardships associated with the storm. This, they claim, is because some evacuation plans, and the way in which they were carried out, appeared to inadequately address their unique circumstances or needs. 

In responding to these challenges, then-Senator Obama introduced S. 1685 in the 109th Congress, which would have directed the Secretary of Homeland Security to ensure that each state provided detailed and comprehensive information regarding its pre-disaster and post-disaster plans for the evacuation of individuals with special needs in emergencies. President Barack Obama indicated during his campaign that he would continue to pursue similar evacuation polices. 

Another facet of evacuation is sheltering displaced individuals. For short-term sheltering, federally provided resources include food, water, cots, and essential toiletries. When displaced individuals need long-term sheltering, federal policy provides financial assistance for alternative accommodations such as apartments, motels and hotels, recreational vehicles, and modular units. 

While federal law provides for certain aspects of civilian emergency evacuation, evacuation policy generally is established and enforced by state and local officials. In recent years, Members of Congress have focused, in part, on policy options that addressed issues of equity during evacuations as well as attempts to integrate federal, state, and local evacuation efforts more fully. 

This report discusses federal evacuation policy and analyzes potential lessons learned from the evacuations of individuals in response to the Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005. Several issue areas that might arise concerning potential lawmaking and oversight on evacuation policy are also highlighted.

Date of Report: April 29, 2010
Number of Pages: 19
Order Number: RL34745
Price: $29.95

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