Wednesday, September 2, 2009

From the Oregonian - When I'm staying turns to Save me

Evacuations: When 'I'm staying' turns to 'Save me!'
by The Editorial Board
Tuesday September 01, 2009, 2:37 PM

(Not necessarily the opinion of OEM - but interesting article)

People who resist mandatory evacuation orders during catastrophes such as the L.A. fire should be required to pay costs if they later need rescuing

Some people resist mandatory evacuation orders and try to ride out disasters such as hurricanes to wildfires, only to discover that they have underestimated the danger and need rescuing. It happened again this week when some homeowners refused to evacuate in the face of the wildfire rolling across the Los Angeles hills, only to later ask firefighters to brave the flames and come to their rescue.

Are these people entitled to help? Well, yes, if firefighters judge that they can reach them safely. But in our view, the holdouts also are obligated to pay at least some of the costs of their rescue.

Oregon and other Western states that confront fast-moving wildfires sweeping into rural communities regularly deal with homeowners who insist on staying and fighting to save their homes. Florida, Louisiana and other gulf states face the same issue, often on a much larger scale, when hurricanes bear down on coastal cities.

Yet no state has figured out exactly how to deal with people who refuse to follow evacuate orders, only to later require difficult, costly and often dangerous rescues. Texas, in a new law that took effect Tuesday, is the first state in the nation to give police the explicit power to arrest people, and forcibly remove them, if they conclude they are in imminent danger by refusing to follow evacuation orders. In other states, a person cannot be forced to evacuate under most conditions.

Police, firefighters and disaster management officials have tried all sorts of non-coercive tactics to get people to follow their orders and evacuate in the face of fires, hurricanes, chemical spills and other dangers. They've asked people for the names and contact information of their next of kin, and they've even used the "Magic Marker" strategy, insisting that people who stay behind write their Social Security numbers on their limbs and torsos so that their remains can be identified.

Yet people continually defy mandatory evacuation orders, either because they don't believe the danger is severe, or because they insist on staying and defending their homes. Three people suffered third-degree burns in the Los Angeles fire when they stayed to protect their house and tried to submerge themselves in a backyard hot tub when flames overran their home. When some homeowners in the mountain community of Oak Glen near Los Angeles refused to evacuate, firefighters wound up sleeping in their yards overnight to protect them. The same scenario has played out time after time during major Oregon wildfires, too.

There are some who argue that those who disobey a mandatory evacuation order forfeit their right to later rescue. In fact, there isn't a fire or rescue crew in this country that would take that position; if it's possible for rescuers to safely reach people and save them from fire, flooding or other danger, they are going to do so. And that's the way it should be.

But it seems to us that those who refuse a mandatory evacuation order do take on a responsibility to cover any extra public costs that are incurred if it is necessary to later rescue. It's not fair for other taxpayers to bear all the costs of their heedlessness. Yes, billing the holdout homeowners in the Los Angeles fire for their later rescue, for example, is not a perfect solution.

And yes, it would be impossible in many major disasters, such as hurricanes, to hold thousands, even tens of thousands, of people accountable for failing to evacuate to higher ground.

But current laws and practices surrounding mandatory evacuations are neither safe nor equitable. The people who won't leave, who insist on staying only to call later for help, create extra complications for firefighters, and extra costs for everyone else. And when the smoke clears, or the water recedes, it seems only fair to send them a bill.