Environmental Evacuation Is a Collective Problem

Blue road sign reading "evacuation route" in front of a highway at night

Traveling along Interstate 10 from Houston to San Antonio, you are bound to experience conditions typical of Texas highways. Look out your side window, and you might notice hilly, open fields that lead off into an unknown distance or towards some rural farmstead. If you are driving in the springtime, you might be lucky enough to see a cluster of wildflowers, perhaps remnants of Ladybird Johnson’s highway beautification initiative in the mid-1960s. You are, unfortunately, almost sure to experience the never-ending frustration associated with mile-long construction projects or an onslaught of traffic. If you are an observant driver, you might also notice a peculiar cyclone-shaped symbol on a blue sign along the road or painted onto the asphalt. 

Contraflow evaucation road sign in Florida. Photo by Mingo Hagen, 2010.

These signs are markers of the state’s contraflow evacuation system (which alters the normal flow of traffic in the case of emergencies) and are ubiquitous along East Texas’s roads and highways. The contraflow system demonstrates how climate evacuation, often understood through the narratives of individuals who evacuate, is a collective problem that requires system-level strategies. Indeed, evacuation is frequently written about through the lens of individual evacuees’ attempts to flee their homes or to survive when those evacuation attempts fail. While these narratives are essential to understanding the importance of evacuation, they often reify the expectation that individuals will save themselves. Individualist narratives of evacuation hide the roles of social systems and state actors in preparing for or even preventing evacuation attempts.  

As natural disasters become more frequent and severe, climate change discourses and initiatives must include a renewed focus on evacuation. More specifically, an environmental evacuation discourse must move away from individualistic accounts toward a collective understanding of evacuation that puts the onus of evacuation preparation on public agencies. This essay uses hurricanes and tropical storms as examples to explore these dynamics. However, I believe the lessons they provide can just as easily inform evacuations from other climate change–induced natural disasters such as wildfires. By recognizing climate evacuation as a fundamental and collective problem, scholars and policymakers can better prioritize and support increased public investment into evacuation systems, planning, and infrastructure. 

Contraflow and the Importance of Environmental Evacuation  

The contraflow evacuation system highlights the importance of prioritizing public investment into environmental evacuation infrastructure in an increasingly volatile environment. As the climate changes, scientists predict that the magnitude and severity of hurricanes and tropical storms will increase. There are numerous ways that local governments and institutions can prepare for these events, such as investments in climate adaptation infrastructure like sea walls or floodway management. Evacuation offers a last line of defense if a hurricane or tropical storm is so severe as to cause havoc even despite these adaptation investments. Disaster preparation must include bolstering public evacuation systems and infrastructure to efficiently move evacuees out of harm’s way. However, the mass movement of people during a natural disaster is no easy task. 

Contraflow, which gained prominence in Southeastern states’ transportation infrastructure in the 1990s, offers one strategy for expediting these evacuations. When an evacuation is announced, the state triggers the system, activating the lights on the roadside contraflow signs and allowing drivers to use the shoulder or opposing traffic lanes to flee to safety. In Texas, the need for increased contraflow routes  became clear during Hurricane Rita, as those fleeing the Houston region were met with miles of traffic that made reaching safe, non-coastal ground arduous. The map of Texas’ contraflow routes serves as a visual reminder of the areas at highest risk and the need to prepare should a devastating hurricane, tropical storm, or flood strike. 

Traffic jam on US-59 as people fled Houston before Hurricane Rita. Photo by Donald Rogers, 2005.

Contraflow is one example of a strategy to strengthen climate adaptation infrastructure focused on easing the burden of evacuation. However, the need to bolster and expedite environmental evacuation does not stop at infrastructure alone. The  decision  to begin an evacuation is of massive political importance, and the emergency management tools, risk models, and bureaucratic procedures that determine when to begin an evacuation are often hidden from public scrutiny. These technocratic calculations carry heavy consequences, as they must come in enough time so those fleeing disaster are not put at increased risk from storms or floods while evacuating.  

Lessons from environmental evacuation in the American South illustrate the need for centering evacuation in climate change discourses.

For instance, as Hurricane Harvey made its way toward the Texas coast, the City of Houston did not order a mandatory evacuation and advised residents to ride out the storm. City officials feared a situation similar to Hurricane Rita in which an evacuation would be too chaotic even with the contraflow system in place. These officials feared evacuation would only push residents onto roads as floodwaters increased, placing evacuees at greater risk of harm than if they had stayed put. 

Evacuation Narratives Beyond the Individual Level 

Perhaps nowhere is the case for an environmental evacuation discourse more apparent than understanding evacuation during Hurricane Katrina. An estimated 1.5 million people were  forced to flee  their homes due to the Category 5 storm. The well-publicized evacuation became a mass diaspora for the Gulf Coast region, as many evacuees became permanently displaced from their communities. Katrina was marked by the public sector’s failure to prepare for the storm or its consequent mass evacuation. 

While Gulf Coast residents were stuck in a collective crisis, the politics of evacuation were framed almost exclusively through an individualist ethic during Katrina. Citizens were responsible for determining how they would evacuate, leaving many who were homebound or lacked a means of transportation stranded. This individualist ethic is well illustrated by New Orleans resident Jabbar Gibson’s attempt to flee the floods. After realizing help was not on the way, Gibson and his friends took it upon themselves to evacuate. They commandeered a school bus and rescued almost 70 people from his community. As the bus fled the city, local police stopped the group and forced everyone off the stolen bus, only allowing them to continue after Bernice Gibson, Jabbar’s mother, convinced the officers it was the safest option.  

Bernice Gibson was later quoted saying, “it ain’t the police who was helping us.” Indeed, it was up to individuals to determine how they would leave the city. The group’s primary interaction with a government agency was in an attempt to slow them down. Gibson, and others like him who took it upon themselves to evacuate, are heroes without a doubt. Still, it is worth asking why the state had abandoned so many people to determine their own ways out of the floodwaters. Even after the floods, the state did not applaud Gibson’s heroic efforts. Instead, Gibson would later become ensnared in our country’s racialized system of mass incarceration, spending years incarcerated on narcotics charges.  

Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey. Photo by The National Guard, 2017.

By centering evacuation politics instead of stories of individual triumph, scholars, policymakers, and activists might also consider what happens to evacuees after disasters subside. What systems were put into place for those temporarily displaced following Katrina to help them return to their communities and rebuild their homes? What have been the long-term cultural and economic impacts of evacuation for those permanently displaced? Are there racial or class-based disparities in answers to either of these questions? Through an environmental evacuation discourse, we can outline the impacts of the lack of preparation for evacuation, inequalities in the ability to evacuate, and how to invest in evacuation technologies to prepare for future disasters. 

These lines of inquiry can be especially useful for social scientists who are increasingly interested in the social impacts of and responses to climate change. This scholarship has focused on studying climate adaptation technologies, climate-induced migration, and environmental justice. Evacuation is uniquely situated at the nexus of these social forces. Evacuation infrastructure or emergency management systems can be considered a type of climate adaptation when all other adaptation technologies fail.  

It is imperative to put the onus of evacuation on system-level strategies.

Additionally, as seen through the example of Hurricane Katrina, evacuations can trigger the temporary or permanent movement of people at the behest of a natural disaster. Those interested in environmental evacuation would be remiss not to lean on the existing work of migration scholars, using the lenses and frameworks developed by this theoretically and methodologically rich subdiscipline to understand the movements of people due to climate change. Moreover, scholars might investigate whether and how environmental evacuation preparation is equitably implemented across social groups. 

The Future of Environmental Evacuation Discourse 

Lessons from environmental evacuation in the American South illustrate the need for centering evacuation in climate change discourses more globally. The state has a crucial responsibility to develop efficient, impactful, and equitable evacuation infrastructure and emergency management systems. It is imperative to put the onus of evacuation on system-level strategies and governmental actors. I am not suggesting that we should ignore or disregard the lived experiences of individual evacuees. Instead, I hope to highlight what a structural analysis of evacuation that moves beyond individual responsibility might look like for climate change discourses.   

To be sure, my analysis is not meant to write off technocratic climate change solutions entirely. State governments can and should push to mitigate future carbon emissions and invest in carbon sequestration technologies. The public and private sectors can and should also focus on developing traditional climate adaptation technologies to safeguard against the impacts of natural disasters, including sea walls to protect against flooding and outdoor sprinkler systems to protect against wildfires. Social movements can and should continue pushing the state and private sector to reach these goals and ensure equitable climate investments.   

Evacuation offers a last line of defense.

Yet, in the meantime, climate change discourses cannot ignore questions related to evacuation. As anthropogenic climate change increases the occurrence of natural disasters, scholars, policymakers, and activists must center evacuation politics. The public sector needs to prioritize developing evacuation technologies such as contraflow routes, transparent emergency management to predict the need for evacuations, and plans for getting individuals out of harm’s way collectively. Meanwhile, scholars must include evacuation in studying the sociopolitical dynamics and impacts of the climate crisis. I would love to live in a world where environmental evacuation was utterly unnecessary, but that is not our reality. All the sea walls in the world will not prevent the occasional need to evacuate, and evacuation must be a core tenant of investing in robust climate adaptation. 

Featured Image: Contraflow road sign in Delaware, photo by Curtis Gregory Perry, 2012.

Max Lubell is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology and graduate trainee in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. While Max’s research is primarily focused on community-based alternatives to policing and incarceration, he holds a secondary interest in studying how cities are responding to the climate crisis. Max holds a B.A. in Sociology from the University of Michigan. Contact. Twitter