The devastation in Maui as a result of the deadliest wildfire there in a century prompts the inevitable question: what next for the thousands of people who had to evacuate and have lost their homes?
Evacuations are a major component of disaster risk-reduction strategies, designed to save lives in an emergency by moving people to safety. They may become an even-more-common strategy across the world as climate change triggers more frequent and severe disasters.
And evacuation isn’t always temporary; it can also result in displacement, uprooting people for prolonged periods and putting lives in limbo. So the assumption that evacuations are short-term solutions and that evacuees will be able to return home soon after a disaster has passed becomes increasingly problematic. Widespread destruction like that in Maui means that for some people, return may not be possible for a long time, if at all.
If policymakers were to consider the needs of evacuees through the lens of internal displacement, they might be able to better target support and promote well-being and recovery by anticipating people’s needs over time, not just in the emergency phase.
The challenge of addressing evacuees’ needs is compounded by the absence of good data, especially disaggregated data showing impacts on particular groups. Globally, it is very difficult to quantify the precise number of evacuees. In 2022, 32.6 million internal displacements of individuals were linked to disasters, most of which began as evacuations. These estimates are imprecise and conservative, based on proxy indicators such as housing loss. As the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) – the world’s leading organization on internal displacement – notes, the data does not differentiate between pre-emptive evacuations and post-disaster displacement, nor does it include tourists (because they are not displaced from home) or those who shelter with family or friends. As such, the figures are underestimates.
By the end of 2022, IDMC estimated that 8.7 million people remained displaced on account of disasters. While this suggests that many millions had returned home during the year, it is difficult to discern precisely what the numbers mean, especially since they include people who were displaced prior to 2022 but remain without a durable solution.
There is mounting evidence that significant numbers of evacuees end up being displaced for long periods of time. For instance, at least two years after Australia’s devastating wildfires of 2019-20, some families were still living in camping trailers and other temporary housing. At least five years after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, people were still living in temporary accommodation. And a decade on from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, thousands of evacuees had never returned home.
Risks of Failures in Planning and Preparation
If policymakers do not understand evacuations as a form of displacement, then prevention and preparedness strategies may be ill-targeted, and people’s needs may go unaddressed. In practice, this may mean insufficient support for those who are displaced, and a lack of accountability among government authorities.
Furthermore, if there is insufficient information available, then authorities and communities cannot adequately plan. This can lead to gaps in official responses that either don’t adequately account for the scale of displacement or fail to identify it at all. The litany of failures documented in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exemplify some of these problems.
Conversely, by viewing evacuations as a form of displacement, it is possible to identify and address these gaps early on. In this, governments could be helpfully assisted by international standards such as the U.N.’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which provide relevant and detailed advice on the protection and assistance of evacuees before, during, and after their movement.
Part of the challenge here is a conceptual one. Evacuations are typically seen as a form of rescue – a protective measure to assist people at imminent risk. The IDMC has noted, for instance, that evacuations have “successfully reduced the number of people killed in a number of large disasters and highlight the fact that not all displacement is negative.” On occasion, people may even find that their temporary accommodation and location offer better opportunities than their original place of residence.
However, evacuations can also leave people stranded or living in precarious situations for years, including at a heightened risk of eviction. If policymakers do not recognize this, they may be blind to the deep losses that can come from dislocation from land and not recognize its human rights implications, including for livelihoods, well-being, culture, cultural heritage, and identity.
Ensuring Reasonable and Engaged ‘Choice’
Generally, the preferred policy “solution” to displacement is return home. This is seen as crucial to recovery. Many people want to return as soon as they can – to reconnect with community, re-establish their lives, return to jobs and, in some cases, because of deep, spiritual connections to the land.
However, as the frequency and severity of disasters intensify with climate change, the viability of return may be called into question. Even if physical return is possible, people’s economic circumstances there may be so poor as to expose them to continuing risk of future displacement. While people with financial resources have options – to return and rebuild or move elsewhere comfortably, either temporarily or permanently – those without sufficient means may feel returning home is their only choice, especially those who already face intergenerational disadvantage and marginalization, which can be compounded in an unfamiliar environment. There are many stories of people returning after a disaster to live in a tent in their front yard or in the shell of their moldy, flood-ravaged house – at heightened risk of illness and exposure to future extreme weather events. Even though they have returned, they have not found a safe, dignified, or sustainable solution.
A number of Pacific countries, including Fiji and Vanuatu, have developed national guidelines on internal displacement in the context of climate change and disasters, while Fiji and the Solomon Islands have created guidelines on – and implemented – planned relocations in this context. World-leading practices in the Pacific exist because this region has been on the frontline of climate impacts for decades. They show the importance of consultation and consent, and the detrimental long-term impacts if the voices of those directly affected are ignored.
Good public policy should enable people to have real choices. For some, being assisted to move elsewhere – whether through rental assistance, land buy-backs, planned relocations, or more individuated forms of support – may be the preferred option. For others, moving away may be a measure of last resort. Most importantly, affected communities must be a key part of decision-making, with their local knowledge and lived experience taken into account, alongside scientific evidence about future disaster risks, as well as integrated assessments that consider economic and social factors.
While evacuations remain an essential element of emergency management and disaster response, care must be taken that they do not precipitate longer-term risks and vulnerabilities. Otherwise, the real disaster is what happens after the evacuation.