Can the U.S. Govmt FORCE an evacuation?

What with the hurricane battered U.S. coast right now and a few thread related to evacuation, I’m wondering, can an evacuation be forced?

Let’s change the danger from a hurricane to something else. Maybe a military plane carrying a nuclear weapon crashes a few hundred meters from my home. Some emergency worker or official runs up to my door and tells me I’ve got ten seconds to grab whatever I can’t live without and move. The fact that he’s escorted by half a dozen, stone-faced, soldiers lend gravitas to his instruction. The official may use nicer language but as a practical reality, it boils down to “You need to get on the army truck and leave NOW! If you argue, you will be dragged. If you fight, you’ll be shot in the leg, arrested, then carried. GO!”

Is this scenario at all possible? What incident might lawfully trigger such a response?

There is such a thing as Mandatory Evacuation. Ignoring it is a misdemeanor, but actual arrests are vanishingly rare.

Almost every state has some form of mandatory evacuation law. These are rooted in the basic idea that an emergency situation (eg war or natural disaster) compels the authority to suspend personal liberties for the sake of maintaining order and preventing loss of life. Many states (eg Texas, California, Maryland, and others) have laws that specifically criminalize failure to comply and allow the authorities to arrest someone who refuses evacuation. This was one of the many points of contention in the aftermath of Katrina, as some citizens were arrested and/or disarmed because they refused to evacuate. The goal of these laws is not just to prevent loss of life among the evacuees, but to avoid creating even worse situations later on when hungry, isolated, injured, and possibly irrational people have to be rescued from their own stupidity.

These laws are almost never actually enforced for the obvious reasons. Weighing the use of violence now against the possibility of a hazardous situation later is a tough call to make. As we saw in Louisiana, it invites heavy criticism of the authorities if they use violence or appear heavy-handed. In most cases, it just isn’t worth the effort and the bad PR that comes from actually arresting people and dragging them from their homes.

Keep in mind, the people who enforce these orders are the same people who will shoot you dead for no reason whatsoever so I can hardly say I trust them to exercise prudence and sound judgment.

The states are responsible for handling disasters. and you’ve probably heard a dozen interviews with sheriffs in the last few days saying, “We can’t force people to leave their homes.” That’s because the North Carolina constitution says no person can be seized without a warrant. Since the N.C. constitution dates back to 1776, I’m guessing the other 49 states say something similar.

After the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, the mayor essentially deputized local soldiers and sailors to enforce the law. The justification used at that time was that the civilian government had broken down and was unable to function. But martial law was never officially declared, even though many complained both military and civilian law enforcement were making up laws as they went along.

This is the fundamental answer to the OP’s question.

In extreme circumstances, control of civilians can be given to the military. They can then issue orders as they see fit, and use what force they deem necessary to compel you to comply.

This happened once, near Devil’s Tower, in Wyoming:

The United States Army evacuates the area, planting false reports in the media that a train wreck has spilled a toxic nerve gas…

76 years ago today, the U.S. Government evacuated the Japanese from Guadalcanal, and that was certainly forcible.

Moderator Note

Let’s keep political comments out of GQ.

Fictional or irrelevant examples are also not particularly helpful in GQ.

General Questions Moderator

Here is an article from a publication of the American Bar Association that goes into the legality of mandatory evacuation (“authority to effect a mandatory evacuation has its roots in sovereign authority and the police power”), how it could be enforced and the policy implications of doing so.

Very nice link. Many thanks.

I’ll say that, given that I’m posting from inside a mandatory evacuation zone right this moment, that it’s less mandatory than one might think. I think 90%+ of my town of about 7500 is still here based on traffic.