Not state’s job to enforce evacuations

A Texas county judge is right to worry about the “drastic” state law that allows government officials the power to arrest people who choose to stay home when evacuation orders are issued.

House Bill 1831, which goes into effect Sept. 1, allows Texas county and city officials the “use of reasonable force” to remove people from any land, including their own homes, where an evacuation order has been issued. That order can be issued for a storm, fire or any other threat.

“I hope that it doesn’t get to that (enforcing the law), because we don’t have anyplace to put them (arrested people),” Cameron County Judge Carlos H. Cascos told a Freedom Communications reporter last week.

What to do with the people they round up would be (and should be) the last problem local officials would have to deal with.

The law puts them in a rather precarious position. Now that they are responsible for deciding if people stay or leave, they should also bear the responsibility for those decisions.

It’s reasonable to expect, especially in the highly litigious Rio Grande Valley, that anyone who stays and is injured in a storm could sue local officials for not enforcing the law. It’s also reasonable to expect anyone who is forced out to hold the government responsible if that property is then looted after it was abandoned by force.

It is unreasonable, however, to expect local law enforcement officials, who already are undermanned and overstrapped, to patrol neighborhoods and round up everybody who wishes to stay home despite the risks involved. Those officers are needed to respond to immediate emergencies and to manage the traffic flow for those who do chose to leave the area.

Evacuation announcements do tell an area’s residents of the severity of impending risk, and many people do choose to leave the area when they are issued. Those orders usually are issued ahead of hurricanes, and longtime residents know how inexact such storms can be. Many storms have come within a few miles of Texas coastlines, only to veer off at the last minute. Certainly, that history should not lead to complacency, as we learned when Hurricane Dolly hit Texas.

Even Dolly, however, showed how problematic mandatory evacuations can be. South Padre Island and southern parts of the Valley were under evacuation orders, while the greatest damage occurred in northern Cameron and Hidalgo counties. The greatest damage was from flooding, and many residents who left found it difficult if not impossible to return home for several days due to high water in outlying areas, even though their homes were relatively unaffected by the storm.

More importantly, many of those who chose to stay became the core of support for those most affected by the storm. Volunteers and merchants combined to establish aid and support stations to offer care and supplies for those who lost electricity or access to their homes in the storm.

Government officials, in concert with media, private residents and local businesses, are valuable in alerting residents to storms, fires and other impending dangers. The ultimate, decision, however, on whether to leave or stay should remain with individual residents, and those residents should bear the full consequences of their decisions.

Public officials simply aren’t equipped to find every resident and carry him off to safety. Nor should they be burdened with that responsibility.