Come Hell or High Water: Policing in Natural Disasters

Policing in an area where a natural disaster is actively unfolding presents some unique challenges. Let's examine some of them so that when tragedy strikes in your jurisdiction—whether that's a hurricane, a tornado, a flash flood, a blizzard, an earthquake, a volcano, a wildfire, or something else—you've got a handle on what you've got to handle.

Doug Wyllie Crop Headshot

Embed from Getty Images

Earlier this week, we reported that the Myrtle Beach (SC) Police Department issued a statement warning its citizens that officers may take longer to arrive to calls for service while Hurricane Dorian passes the region.

The department said that officers will remain on the roads as long as it is deemed safe to do so and the agency did not state specifically what conditions would lead officers to take shelter.

Slower response times to calls for service is one of the reasons the city is encouraging voluntary evacuations until the storm passes.

Later in the week, we reported that the South Carolina Governor issued a mandatory evacuation order for approximately 850,000 people who live in the storm's projected path—the governor of Georgia issued a similar order.

We also reported that officers with the Cocoa Beach (FL) Police Department seized 15 kilos of cocaine—worth at least $300,000—that washed ashore in waves pushed by the storm from the Caribbean.

Policing in an area where a natural disaster is actively unfolding presents some unique challenges. Let's examine some of them so that when tragedy strikes in your jurisdiction—whether that's a hurricane, a tornado, a flash flood, a blizzard, an earthquake, a wildfire, a volcano, or something else—you've got a handle on what you've got to handle.

Mandatory Evacuations

With any hurricane, the National Weather Service becomes an absolutely invaluable resource because the agency has become very good at predicting where the storm will make landfall, when it will strike, and its expected severity.

This enables emergency management officials to make well-educated decisions on whether to issue mandatory evacuation orders.

However, mandatory evacuation orders can provide some interesting challenges for police. The most obvious of these problems is keeping traffic moving out of town—another is dealing with the stalwarts who simply refuse to leave.

In the first case, it's become pretty standard protocol to run outbound traffic in all lanes, stopping the flow of inbound traffic entirely. Even in so doing, the traffic can be stifling.

When Hurricane Rita struck the Houston area in 2005, the bumper-to-bumper traffic on one of the outbound freeways stretched for more than 100 miles—right in the middle of the region's hottest months. This caused dozens of deaths from heat stroke as well as myriad traffic accidents to which police had to respond.

With regard to citizens who simply refuse to obey mandatory evacuation orders, in a lot of places there's actually very little police can do. Under California's Emergency Services Act refusing to leave is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000—North Carolina and New York have similar laws. But many states don't actually make refusing to leave a punishable offense.

Only a police officer's verbal powers of persuasion can keep those individuals safe.

Looting and Theft

Following a natural disaster, there exists a significantly higher than normal probability of looting—not just of retail stores, but the homes left vacant by people who evacuated the area and have not yet returned.

Sometimes looting and theft are so widespread that law enforcement agencies are pressed to the limit—in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the days that followed the landfall of the storm and the subsequent collapse of the levee that caused massive flooding, there were so many people raiding supermarkets for food and retail stores for clothing, electronics, and other goods that police in the Big Easy were overmatched.

Rescue Efforts

First responders are the immediate line of defense for rescuing victims of a natural disaster such as a hurricane—followed closely by the National Guard. However, they are very often joined by a makeshift navy of civilian volunteers who spring up out of nowhere with fishing boats in the floodwaters.

Their efforts and enthusiasm are certainly laudable, but police must manage them so they don't turn themselves into victims. While first responders in all three disciplines know from their training what to do and how to do it, many emergent volunteers just "wing it" so police need to be aware of these activities and respond appropriately.

Recovery Efforts

At some point in the wake of every natural disaster, the mission shifts from rescue of the living to recovery of the dead. This can be an arduous task that exposes first responders to potentially widespread carnage. Families of those killed by the natural disaster want closure, so this effort can take weeks, depending on the scope of the area affected and the scale of the damage. In many cases, this effort is a multi-jurisdictional event, with officers from all over the country coming to your area to help.

Following the Camp Fire in California in November 2018—the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the history of the Golden State—the California National Guard activated more than 100 MPs to help search for the remains of decedents with the aid of nearly two dozen trained cadaver dogs.

Personal Loss

Recall that officers with the Paradise Police Department worked tirelessly to help evacuate victims of the Camp Fire—which claimed the lives of 85 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 structures—even as their own homes burned to the ground.

Those officers—joined by law enforcement officers from all over California's Central Valley who rushed to help rescue people from the rapidly moving blaze—knew full well that everything they owned was probably gone and yet they pressed forward into danger in service of their community.

Conversely, there were reports of a large number of officers in New Orleans who abandoned ship during Katrina, shirking their duty and driving their families north into Tennessee and elsewhere.

This was not a good look for law enforcement.

Personal Wellness

During and following a natural disaster, first responders should make every effort to maintain their mental, emotional, and physical wellness. The temptation to work 18 hour days for days on end is high because of the clear need of the community to get police assistance.

Take time to get appropriate rest, nourishment, and be sure to remain hydrated. If you're exposed to trauma—the large number of dead bodies or some other experience that gets into your head—seek the help of a professional to get through it.

Prior Preparation

Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, most law enforcement agencies realized that they needed to do more training with the other two disciplines—EMS and fire—as well as with police agencies from the surrounding area in order to be more effective.

Before it was all but shut down, Urban Shield was the model for this kind of "all hazards" multi-jurisdictional, multi-disciplinary training. Similar training now takes place across the country.

Remember that the last time you want to be exchanging business cards for the first time is in the middle of a disaster. Connect with your colleagues. Train. Train. Train some more.

Final Words

Mother Nature can be a brutally cruel creature—she can be an unrelenting, unforgiving, and unrepentant agent of death and destruction.  

Law enforcement officers are all too familiar with dealing with brutally cruel creatures—from child predators to drug dealers to gang members and all other manner of criminal subjects—but Mother Nature is an entirely different foe.

You know the most likely type of natural disaster to occur in your jurisdiction. In my adopted home state of California, we're highly unlikely to suffer what people on the East Coast are enduring with Hurricane Dorian's arrival on their shores.

But here the Earth may suddenly liquefy and swallow whole swaths of the state. The Midwest has the triple threat of floods, blizzards, and tornadoes. The islands of Hawaii and some of the areas of the mainland still have active volcanoes.

Be prepared to respond to whatever happens—your citizens are counting on you.


Hurricane Response: Weathering the Storm

Hurricane Heroes

How to Manage Your Fleet During a Disaster

Hell in High Water


About the Author
Doug Wyllie Crop Headshot
Contributing Editor
View Bio
Page 1 of 56
Next Page