Can the Government Force Evacuations?

Mandatory evacuations are rarely carried out by force.
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The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left numerous questions about the effectiveness of mandatory evacuations. The right of residents to stay in their homes, in spite of the pending dangers, must be weighed against the government's responsibility to protect the people. Though public policy and state laws allow for forced evacuations, the actual implementation of these efforts is complicated and rarely carried out.

1 Policing Powers

The 10th amendment of the United States Constitution provides state governments with the power to carry out all powers not delegated to the federal government. This includes policing power, which allows the states to create and enforce regulations that promote safety and public welfare. States use their policing power to order mandatory evacuations. In New Jersey, the Office of Emergency Management has statutory discretion to order and carry out mandatory evacuations. North Carolina places the power to order and compel mandatory evacuations in the hands of the governor. These laws demonstrate the legislator's desire to make mandatory evacuations a government tool in times of emergency.

2 Using Physical Force

Once the evacuation is ordered, the next consideration is the use of force in carrying out the mandate. Opponents argue that pulling someone from their home, without due process of law, is an illegal search and seizure, which is a constitutional violation of citizens' rights. Proponents argue that physical force falls under the umbrella of police power, with the state interest in saving lives weighing heavier than possible rights violations. In 2009, Texas law enforcement officers were given the power to arrest anyone refusing a mandatory evacuation order. However, according to the "Corpus Christi Caller Times" newspaper article "Police can use force to compel hurricane evacuation," printed on July 26, 2009, officials admitted that arrests were still highly unlikely.

3 Consequences of Staying

Though law enforcement officers rarely make residents leave, they do strongly encourage it. They do this by having them sign statements, attesting to their refusal to leave. They also ask for next of kin, to further exemplify the seriousness of the situation. Ultimately, there are situations where people refuse to leave, but eventually need to be rescued. Many states require the party to pay for the evacuation costs. In North Carolina, citizens are held civilly liable for all rescue costs when they ignore evacuation warnings and voluntarily place themselves in danger.

4 Illegality of Staying

In states with mandatory emergency evacuation laws, citizen violations are considered misdemeanors, punishable by fine and/or incarceration. Even if these citizens are not forced to evacuate, they can still face criminal charges once the emergency has passed. Though many states have these provisions, very few have been willing to enforce them with arrests. From a practical standpoint, localities do not have the manpower or space to arrest everyone who refuses to leave under mandatory evacuation. Government officials would also have to deal with the public outcry that would undoubtedly follow such actions.

Erika Winston is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, with more than 15 years of writing experience. Her articles have appeared in such magazines as Imara, Corporate Colors E-zine and Enterprise Virginia. She holds a Juris Doctor degree from Regent University and a Masters in public policy from New England College.