Here’s How Emergency Evacuations for Wildfires, Hurricanes, and Other Natural Disasters Really Work

2017 saw horrific, catastrophic hurricanes; Harvey devastated Texans, Irma battered Florida, and Maria wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico, which is still seeking relief. California faces a death toll of nearly 41 amidst one of the state’s deadliest wildfires in history. These natural disasters leave citizens panicked, confused, and often without homes or jobs.

It’s important that states smart evacuation procedures and that residents abide by them as a first step to navigating emergencies. States must respond quickly to save as much of their population as possible.

Here’s how that crucial evacuation and recovery process really works.

Scientists project storms’ paths with ‘spaghetti models’

NOAA's GOES satellite shows Hurricane Irma as it moves towards the Florida Coast in the Caribbean Sea

Hurricane season has been devastating. | NOAA GOES Project via Getty Images

The National Hurricane Center provides constantly updated forecasts for any major storms, such as Hurricane Irma. These forecasts, called spaghetti models, illustrate the storm’s likely track so that any potentially affected states can prepare.

The Weather Channel relays that spaghetti models usually only show the “where” and a loose idea of “when” the storm will hit. The model doesn’t indicate whether a storm will bring rainfall, hurricane-force winds, or surge; it just contains information about the center of a storm’s future track.

The government encourages developing a family evacuation plan

Hurricane Harvey Slams Into Texas Gulf Coast

Decide on a disaster plan ahead of time. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images details four steps to planning for surviving a disaster with your family. Step one focuses on figuring out receiving disaster warnings, picking an evacuation route and potential shelter, and communicating with your family and close friends.

They also recommend detailing the specific needs among your household, filling out a physical family emergency plan, and practicing the plan to ensure you’re as prepared as possible.

The state plans evacuation routes

An SUV Drives by a sign that states "Evacuation Route"

The state has evacuation routes for you to use if necessary. | Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommends that residents know their state’s evacuation routes in case of an emergency departure. This is arguably the most important step in the process, as it ensures you’ll get away from the affected area as best you can.

Coastal evacuation routes exist in states bordering the Atlantic Ocean and New Mexico. They’re denoted by blue and white signs. is a beneficial guide to natural disaster evacuation along with the FEMA mobile app, which stays updated to alert you of traffic patterns on the go.

POTUS declares disaster

US President Donald Trump (R) sits with Texas Governor Greg Abbott during a briefing on Hurricane Harvey in Corpus Christi, Texas

Declaring a disaster is up to the President. | Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Only the President of the United States can make the Disaster Declaration Process, which is necessary to assist in the recovery of impacted states. “A state also includes the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands,” according FEMA. The White House coordinates with FEMA, who relays information about evacuations, sheltering, search and rescue, and significant damages.

For example, when experts updated Harvey to a Category 4 storm, President Trump signed the Presidential Disaster Declaration at the request of Texas Governor Greg Abbott. This opened up the state’s access to federal resources.

States enforce highway and travel patterns

Florida Prepares for Hurricane Irma

There are emergency plans for every state. | Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Fifteen states along the east coast as well as Texas and Louisiana use signed evacuation routes to indicate where traffic should head during an emergency. Some incidents call for contraflow lane reversal. Contraflow lane reversal occurs when states alter control-access highway lane flow to evacuate residents as efficiently as possible.

Other emergencies require vertical and horizontal evacuation. Horizontal evacuation refers to reaching higher ground outside the affected area, but that’s not always possible. So, FEMA established design guidelines for vertical evacuation, which show how to reach higher land when evacuating to higher ground is impossible.

Want to know the evacuation routes in your state? The USA Evacuation Directory provides information for each of the 50 states in the event of an emergency, regardless of how unlikely those emergencies are.

Utilize government resources post-disaster

Costs for rebuilding would be enormous.| Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Surviving and safely evacuating a natural disaster are only the first few steps. Returning home and protecting and rebuilding your home can take years, and they can be very costly. Before returning home, you must look for loose power lines, gas leaks, and wildlife among other potential safety hazards.

And then there’s the challenge of finding loved ones you may have lost touch with during the disaster. Thankfully, when the president declares disaster zones, the affected states can request activation of the National Emergency Family Registry and Locator System. This system can help reunite families and loved ones.

The aftermath: Helping the survivors of a disaster


Sending money is the most effective way of helping. | Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

A natural disaster may last only a few hours, but the aftermath can take months or even years to repair. Helping survivors rebuild their homes, lives, and states often requires federal and personal financial efforts on behalf of millions of Americans. The Center for International Disaster Information emphasizes that sending money is still the most efficient way other citizens can help.

FEMA is still advising and accepting help for survivors of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. But citizens of the U.S. have taken efforts to help Puerto Rico into their own hands, as it remains unclear how long the federal government will aid Puerto Rico. And CNN and other news outlets are beginning to provide information to help those affected by the ongoing California wildfires, which have left dozens dead and thousands homeless.

Check out The Cheat Sheet on Facebook!