Evacuation Planning Throughout History

Known as the immediate removal of people from a dangerous source, emergency evacuations are important to the safety of our society. Reasons for evacuation may include natural disasters, industrial accidents, traffic accidents, fire, military attacks, structural failure, and viral outbreaks. Eventually, emergency evacuation plans were developed to ensure people's safety in the most efficient evacuation time while reducing panic. Most well-thought-out plans ensure fast and complete evacuation by allowing multiple passages of exit.

Evacuations often fall into two categories: small-scale and large-scale. Small-scale evacuations often involve evacuating buildings while large-scale evacuations are usually part of emergency management in which the vulnerability to hazards is reduced to a minimum. While small-scale evacuations can be as simple as a building fire to a gas leak, large-scale evacuations can span very severe cases such as military attacks and natural disasters.

Picture of a hurricane about the start.

Ever since Hurricane Katrina occurred in the US, there has been an increase in evacuation planning. For instance, multi-modal transportation networks are used to facilitate evacuating people out of dangerous areas. Codes for emergency egress systems have ben updated. Personal evacuation kits may be used for some extreme emergencies. They contain some food, clothing, water, and other supplies to sustain an individual between the time danger occurs to the time when emergency personnel come to help. This usually takes about 72 hours, but can vary from a few hours to several days.

An evacuation sequence generally follows these steps:

1. Detection

People become aware of the hazardous or dangerous source. This can be as simple as smelling smoke in a building or hearing a gunshot.

2. Decision

After an administrator or safety personnel becomes aware of the threat or danger, he or she must decide whether to initiate an evacuation or not take action. He or she may consider secluding evacuation to a certain area. For instance, if there is a gas leak on the west side of a large state university, the administrators may only want to evacuate students from the west side of campus and its surrounding areas.

3. Alarm

Once a decision is made, it is announced to the people involved, surrounding community, and possibly the public. In the case of a building fire, someone may turn on the fire alarm. In the case of a campus shooting, the students, faculty, and community may receive emergency emails or text messages on what to do next.

4. Reaction

After an announcement of danger is made, a reaction from the people affected including safety personnel and citizens is expected. In the case of a fire alarm, people may be calm if they do not smell any smoke. In the case of a school shooting, students and faculty may feel confused about what is happening and concerned about what will occur next. Unruly panic rarely occurs in the face of most emergencies. However, fear, concern, and confusion may be present in the people involved.

5. Movement to Safety

Once people have reacted, their next action is to move to safety. For a building fire, this may be to exit the building using the designated doors. For a school shooting, this may be to follow the orders of emergency personnel and the alerts they are given.

6. Transportation

The affected people must be transported away from the danger or hazard. In the case of a building fire, many people may simply drive themselves somewhere else. However, in a school shooting, the emergency personnel may need a plan to properly transport students away from campus, as many students may not have cars or means of transportation to go home or go someplace safe. This may include using campus vehicles to transport students to a safe area away from campus.

Although evacuation plans have been present in modern times, how long have evacuations been present in our world? In the 21st century, mass evacuations are common and difficult to overlook especially with responding to gun violence and threats. Did people initiate evacuations in the past? If so, did people make evacuation plans?

Drawling of the Acropolis in greece

Ancient Times

One of the earliest evacuations dates back to as early as 480 BCE in Greece. Themistocles, a Greek state and navy commander, ordered an evacuation of Athens in response to the approaching Persian army. His strategic countermeasure led to approximately 100,000 inhabitant's survival and safety.

Early Centuries

By the first century, two notable evacuations occurred. In the year 60-61 AD, Boudica's uprising led to the widespread evacuation of multiple Roman settlements in Britain. During 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius' eruption caused the evacuation of Pompeii and its surrounding areas.

Fast-forward to the fifth century, in 410 AD the Sack of Rome in which Rome was under attack by the Visigoths under the leadership of Alaric I, saw the enslavement and captivity of many Romans who later fled the city.

By the thirteenth century between 1237 and 1293, the Mongol invasion of Europe resulted in the fleeing or displacements of thousands of eastern Europeans prior to each of several Mongol expeditions, which led to the destruction of East Slavic territories.

Not long after the Mongol invasion of Europe the Black Death, one of the most devastating pandemics in history, emerged. This led to mass evacuations in various locations primarily in Europe. Nearby areas in northwestern Asian and Egypt were also evacuated.

Modern Times

In 1836, the Fall of the Alamo, during the Texas Revolution, resulted in the Runaway Scrape, a mass evacuation of American, Mexico, Tejano, and Taxian persons.

By the twentieth century, mass evacuations became plentiful and hard to ignore. The 1906 the San Francisco earthquake resulted in multiple fires that led to the evacuation of 20,000 refugees by sea. During World War I in 1939, 3.75 million British civilians were evacuated from London and other major British cities. Between 1939 and 1940, the entire population of Finnish Karelia, about 422,000 people, evacuated their homes during the Winter War, a military conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland. Although about 260,000 civilians returned to their homes during the Continuation War, the hostilities between Finland and the Soviet Union during World War II, they had to evacuate again in June 1944.

Men storming a beach. Emergency evacuations happening.

During 1940s, evacuations became a necessity during times of war, especially during World War II. Operation Dynamo saw the evacuation of around 339,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk, France in response to the German army's invasion during the Battle of France in World War II. In June 1940, a third of the population of the Channel Islands, about 23,600 people, fled to England and Scotland in response to the German invasion. Germany also had its share of evacuations as many children were forced to flee their home country. This was done to protect them from the risks associated with aerial bombing of the cities during World War II. In October 1941, 2 million inhabitants were displaced over the course of two weeks from Moscow in response to the attacking German army. Between 1944 and 1945, estimates of fleeing inhabitants vary from low 5 million to as much as 9 million from both East Prussia and Pomerania combined because of World War II battles. This marked the largest civilian exodus in history. During this time, Japan also evacuated their citizens during the war. From the end of World War II in 1945 until 1953, the Istrian exodus saw anywhere from 250,000 to 350,000 fleeing their homeland.

Although World War II was mere history, evacuations persisted for both military attacks and for natural disasters. 100,000 people from Winnipeg, Canada fled the Red River flood in May 1950. Later that year, 100,000 UN troops fled from the North Korean port of Hungnam during the Korean War. Military attacks persisted in 1971 as 15 million people migrated from Bangladesh to India. This marked largest exodus in human history with 1 million dead. 1974 saw a natural disaster known as Cyclone Tracy, which destroyed over 70% of Darwin, Australia. Over 35,000 people fled the area. Between 1975 and 1979, after Khmer Rouge overtook Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh, 2-3 million civilians evacuated the cities for the countryside for Rouge to make his new Communist society. In November 1979, the city of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada evacuated because of a train derailment due to a chlorine leak. About 218,000 people were displaced.

Mass evacuations continued from the 1980s to the end of the 20th century. In April 1986, the Chernobyl disaster, involving a nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, resulted in an evacuation of 335,000 people. By 1990, over 110,000 people were evacuated by Air India, an Indian airline, from Amman to Mumbai during the Persian Gulf War. This was to protect the Indian expatriates from Kuwait and Iraq. Air India entered the Guinness Book of World Records for evacuating the most people by a civil airliner. In May 1991, Operation Solomon, a covert Israeli military operation, evacuated 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. On June 1991, Operation Fiery Vigil, the evacuation of about 20,000 non-essential military and United States Department of Defense civilian personnel and their dependents from Clark Air Base and the US Naval Base Subic Bay to contiguous United States because of the eruption in the Philippines from Mount Pinatubo. About 200,000 people fled from the Netherland because of flooding in February 1995. Another flood evacuation occurred between July and August 1998 in which about 14 million people were evacuated due to flooding and landslides in north and central China. In preparation for the possible breach of the dikes along the Yangtze River another 300,000 people were evacuated on August 7. By 1999, 800,000 refugees left Kosovo during the Kosovo War. In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd led the fleeing of 3 million people, to the second largest evacuation in US history.

By the 21st century, planning for evacuations became more apparent for public safety. On April 2001, an unexploded bomb dropped during World War II needed to be disarmed leading to the evacuation of 77,000 inhabitant or about 2/3 of the population of Vicenza, Italy. One of the most notable evacuations in US history was during September 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center towers were under attack. About 500,000 people evacuated by boat from downtown Manhattan New York City, NY within just 9 hours. In January 2002, about 300,000 residents of Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo were evacuated because of an eruption of Mount Nyiragongo. Later that year on August 13, 2002, 300,000 50,000 residents evacuated Prague, Czech Republic due to the 2002 European floods. During the second week of August, 200,000 citizens were evacuated while 120,000 people fled Dresden, German, 36,000 in Saxony-Anhalt, German, and 1,500 in Hungary. By July 2005 in Birmingham of the United Kingdom, 20,000 people were evacuated because of a bomb scare. By August 2005, 484,000 evacuated New Orleans, Louisiana before Hurricane Katrina hit. Over 3 million evacuated Texas and Louisiana in September 22, 2005 because of Hurricane Rita. More than 1.4 million people fled Zhejiand and Fujian, two Chinese provinces, before Typhoon Krosa hit. By May 2008, approximately 200,000 people left Beichuan County, China due to the Sichuan earthquake. Following the 2011 Japanese nuclear accidents in March, between 170,000 and 200,000 people fled the surrounding areas of Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in fear of radiation poisoning. By August 2011, Hurricane Irene led to the evacuation of many people from North Carolina and New York. A million people left Uttarakhand, India because of flash flooding and landslides in June 2013. In October 2013, 850,000 people evacuated coastal areas of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh prior to the strike of Super Cycle Phailin.

As you can see from the trends in history, evacuations were present as early as ancient times. However, we did not extensively develop evacuation plans until maybe the 21st century. During the 20th century, evacuations due to wars were common as a strategic and tactical measure rather than ensuring the safety of the citizens. In contrast, the 21st century saw evacuations as more prominent due to natural disasters.


  1. 1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergency_evacuation
  1. 2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mass_evacuations

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