The COVID-19 pandemic complicates evacuation planning—an essential process for reducing human losses from disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and industrial accidents. In the context of the pandemic, it is necessary to modify existing emergency response plans and to plan for new, potentially resource-intensive public safety measures (e.g., physical distancing, testing).

The strategies below can be used by emergency planners to update their evacuation plans in light of COVID-19.

Addressing Community Support Needs

Assess Population Vulnerability. Emergency planners can draw upon community demographic data to identify populations that are most likely to experience disaster impacts and are at higher risk of becoming ill with COVID-19. Engaging local stakeholder organizations with on-the-ground knowledge of community needs—such as food banks, domestic violence service providers, and community housing providers—can also be useful for emergency planning.
Address Access and Functional Needs. COVID-19 has compounded barriers to evacuation among vulnerable groups, such as nursing home populations and communities without reliable transportation. Emergency planners can turn to special needs registries or work with human services organizations to anticipate these challenges and link needs to available resources so community members without alternatives will not be left in dangerous conditions.

Alternative measures, such as new agreements and plans for coordination among multiple agencies, need to be considered to support populations that may face additional barriers to evacuation.

Planning for Transportation

Reassess Existing Transportation Agreements. Evaluating transportation resources in advance of an emergency is vital to ensuring that services will be available to all who need them. This step is even more critical now that many public transit agencies have reduced staff levels in response to sharp declines in demand since the onset of the pandemic. Form new agreements with providers, train additional workers, or find additional voluntary organization partners to fill service gaps.
Incorporate Public Health Best Practices into Existing Transportation Plans. To prepare for evacuation in the context of the pandemic, public health guidelines regarding COVID-19 prevention need to be incorporated into existing transportation plans. Modify transportation services to follow public health best practices including mask wearing, distancing, and sanitization. When resource or time constraints prevent adherence to health guidance, coordinate with public health authorities to ensure appropriate or alternative public health measures.
Address Private Vehicle Usage. Evacuees often carpool. Provide guidance on how to reduce virus transmission when multiple households carpool together and how to avoid crowds at rest stops and destinations. Relay information about the rates of infection in likely destination communities so that evacuees can make informed decisions about the risks associated with various locations.
Reduce Shadow Evacuation. Shadow evacuation—when people outside the officially declared evacuation zone decide to leave—can be even more problematic during the pandemic, as crowds along travel routes increase the risk of virus transmission. Create and communicate geographically specific messages about which areas are at the highest risk for disaster impacts and in which areas residents can safely shelter in place to limit evacuations to areas where they are most needed.

Issuing Evacuation Guidance

Address Virus Transmission Concerns in Evacuation Guidance and Integrate Public Health Guidance into Evacuation Outreach. The COVID-19 pandemic complicates people’s risk assessment calculations during an emergency. Help people resolve the conflict between the avoidance of COVID-19 exposure and the need for evacuation by explicitly acknowledging these concerns and advising them how to prioritize and mitigate risks. Include detailed instructions on how to reduce the risk of virus transmission. Information about risk prioritization can be paired with advice on using masks and taking other precautions in shelter spaces whenever possible.
Account for Delayed Decision-Making and Evacuation Processes. Timing is critical to evacuation, but several aspects of the evacuation process are likely to take longer than normal during the pandemic. Carefully consider how much advance warning is feasible, and update plans accordingly.


Learn More

SEAN  is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, substantially contributed to this guidance.

Read the guidance online at

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SEAN is a network of experts in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences poised to assist decision makers at all levels as they respond to COVID-19. The network appreciates any and all feedback on its work. Please send comments to