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Mervin V. Gutierez/Caritas/CAFOD 2014;

Chapter 16 Preparing for disasters and emergencies

Evacuation and emergency shelter

Photo: Mervin V. Gutierez/Caritas/CAFOD 2014;

In many cases evacuation is the primary response to warnings. Official evacuation plans should be based on an understanding of people’s existing capacities and opportunities to evacuate (lack of attention to this was one of the many factors that contributed to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans in 2005). Particular attention should be given to helping vulnerable people escape: older people, the disabled and pregnant women or women with young children may not be able to move quickly and easily, and may need assistance. Evacuations are often voluntary, in response to warnings and advice from the authorities, but in some circumstances may be mandatory: forced removal of inhabitants tends to be seen as a last resort, but it can save many lives.

Establishing escape routes and emergency public shelters is essential. People at risk need to know which routes are safe to use and where to go in case of a hazard event. Escape routes and emergency shelters have to be designed for specific hazards, as a certain place or route may provide safety against one type of hazard but not against another. Many lives are lost in disasters because people remain in their homes for too long, until they cannot escape, or because places they believed to be safe were not.

Escape routes can take many forms, such as paths, roads, open land and fields. They should not be cut off by the hazard itself (e.g. by flood waters) or blocked by those fleeing the disaster; alternative routes should be made available wherever possible. Emergency plans often include safe pick-up areas where people can gather before being transported to designated public shelters. These pick-up areas can be open spaces, public buildings or landmarks, or any other places that are safe and accessible to vehicles.

Public shelters are often purpose-built but they do not always need to be specially constructed, since existing community buildings such as schools, community centres, churches, temples and mosques may be adequate or can be upgraded. Conversely, many disaster shelters are used during normal times as community buildings, such as meeting halls, schools and stores. Shelters should be designed or adapted to the specific hazard threat(s), the local geography and the needs of those who use them, as well as the length of time they are likely to be occupied. Planning should include compiling inventories of such facilities and strengthening or protecting them where necessary. Shelters often have to take in more people than they were designed for, and for longer periods than they have supplies for. Arrangements have to be in place for provisioning and maintenance between crises. There is concern that people in positions of power may use such facilities for their own purposes and deny access to others at times of crisis, or may influence the siting of shelters to suit their own purposes, though it is unclear how widespread this is or how best to prevent it. Evidence from the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan disaster in the Philippines has drawn attention to the importance of the correct siting of evacuation shelters: many of the shelters that people moved to in response to warnings were in danger areas and were not built to withstand the force of the storm surge, and as a result many people in those shelters died.+Neussner, Assessment of Early Warning Efforts in Leyte for Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda.

Safety within shelters is also important. Women may be reluctant to go to shelters because of the lack of privacy or fear of abuse there. Disabled people experience considerable difficulties with regard to access, facilities, food, medication, communication and other support. Most of these problems are due to poor shelter planning and management and can be overcome through better organisation and awareness-raising among staff.

More systematic study of how shelters are managed during and between disasters would be helpful. Maintenance of shelters and their equipment appears to be a common issue, once the external agencies that built and established them have left. Community organisations need training, resources and a clear mandate to ensure that shelters are fit for purpose; they must also be trusted by community members to carry out their responsibilities honestly and efficiently.

Case Study 16.5 Impact of cyclone preparedness measures in Orissa (Odisha)

ACTIONS Super Cyclone (Paradeep/05B), 28–30 October 1999 Cyclone Phailin, 12 October 2013
Mitigation and DRR
  • Just 23 cyclone shelters existed in Orissa, all built by the Red Cross
  • Communities reported not knowing how high above sea level they were, and consequently did not have any idea of how far the storm surge would reach and thought they would be safe
  • Orissa State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA) reported it had constructed 43 cyclone shelters by July 2003 and half a million cyclone-resistant houses; 10,000 primary schools and 900 secondary schools strengthened
  • By 2013 an estimated 200 shelters were completed, each able to hold around 500 people
  • People were trained by NGOs and OSDMA to understand risk and warnings, how and when to use shelters and what other preparations they should make, including dissemination of warnings
Preparedness: early warning
  • First official advisory from Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) 48 hours before landfall. Most people hear of warning between 24 and 12 hours beforehand through TV, newspaper or radio
  • IMD underestimated the cyclone’s intensity and only issued a revised warning two hours before communications were cut, leaving insufficient time to relay to communities. Warnings also gave no advice on appropriate responses, and terminology was too technical
  • IMD issued Red Message on 8 October (96 hours before landfall) to relevant authorities and district officials. Improved accuracy of forecasting meant that it was able to estimate potential damage. OSDMA issued detailed guidance for preparedness on 9 October (72 hours before landfall)
  • Early warning messages disseminated on TV and online media and 10,000 text messages sent to mobile phones
  • Loudspeakers used to reach those without access to TV/media/internet
early action
  • Most people did not evacuate (approximate maximum 69,000), and those that sought shelter took inadequate supplies
  • Red Cross supplies proved inadequate for the number of people that did go to shelters
  • Communities took active steps to protect themselves, moving to cyclone shelters with provisions and livestock (nearly 1.2m took refuge or were moved inland)
  • OSDMA ensured that all mobile phone numbers were updated and verified, cancelled leave and placed stocks of food and relief items on stand-by
  • Control rooms were established in ten coastal districts
  • Water levels in reservoirs were lowered to mitigate anticipated flooding
  • Precautions were taken to protect cattle
Preparedness: response readiness
  • There was no clear mechanism for coordinating response and communications
  • National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) deployed 2,000 personnel to the three affected states ahead of landfall; 29 teams of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) were deployed with rescue equipment in Odisha and 15 in Andhra Pradesh, assisted by four teams from Tamil Nadu, and seven teams deployed in West Bengal. All teams were equipped with sat-phones and wireless sets
  Cyclone statistics
Wind speeds Up to 260kph Up to 220kph
Storm surge height 7 metres 3.5 metres
Flooding extent 15–30km inland
People affected 19m 13.2m
People evacuated (including moving to community shelters) Approx. 69,000 1m
Fatalities Approx. 10,000 30–50
Economic losses
  • 450,000 Livestock killed
  • 1.6m Houses damaged
  • 1.9m hectares or 19,000km2 land flooded
  • 5,000km2 land flooded, approx. $320m
Prepared by Laura Howlett from F. Thomalla and H. Schmuck, ‘“We All Knew That a Cyclone Was Coming”: Disaster Preparedness and the Cyclone of 1999 in Orissa, India’, Disasters, 2004, 28(4); V. K. Sharma and A. A. Khan, ‘Orissa (India) Super-cyclone: Impact and Emergency Management’, in S. M. Seraj et al. (eds), Village Infrastructure To Cope with the Environment: Proceedings of the International Millennium Conference on Housing and Hazards and the Rural Community (Dhaka/Exeter: Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and Housing and Hazards Group, 2000),;, special issue 99, October 2013; ‘When Preparedness Works: Case of Cyclone Phailin’,, November 2013; ‘Cyclone Phailin in India: Early Warning and Timely Actions Saved Lives’, Global Environmental Alert Service, November 2013,