Committee hears evacuation bill

BISMARCK—North Dakota senators are considering a bill that would expand who could order mandatory evacuations during life-threatening situations.

House Bill 1327 allows designated incident commanders to order evacuations if they find it necessary to save lives during a local disaster or emergency. This includes hazardous material spills, flooding, fires and storms that turn into catastrophic events.

Anyone who ignored an order could face a $500 fine.

There’s a lot of confusion about the bill and what it does, said Greg Wilz, deputy director of the state Department of Emergency Services.

“In no way does this bill serve as a foundation for instituting martial law,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Right now, the governor or a mayor can order evacuations, if city ordinance gives the mayor the authority. Under the bill, a local government could give fire, law enforcement or other emergency officials the authority to order an evacuation as well, he said.

An incident commander would be someone responsible for all aspects of an emergency response and who sets priorities and defines the organization of the response.

Allowing additional officials to have evacuation authority provides for quicker decision-making from those with real-time awareness of the situation, Wilz said.

An incident could occur when the mayor and governor are unavailable or asleep in the middle of the night, and instant action is needed to save lives, he said.

The bill provides safeguards so the authority is not misused, he said. It requires activation of a local jurisdiction’s disaster or emergency operations plan, which must identify who is allowed evacuation authority.

Sen. Margaret Sitte, R-Bismarck, said she’s received e-mails from Fargo residents who stayed in their homes during flooding to save their homes despite being asked to evacuate

“They are strongly in opposition to this bill,” she said. “So, when you are talking about impelling someone to leave their property, are you talking about handcuffs? Where are you really going with this?”

Wilz said decisions would be made at the local level and determined on a case-by-case basis. If residents remain in their homes and aren’t in danger of being killed, he said he wouldn’t push that.

If people could die if they stay, then local action will be increased, he said.

Sen. Ron Sorvaag, R-Fargo, asked how cities would designate incident commanders since there’s no way to know who’s awake when or who will respond to an incident.

Wilz said his department would work with and educate local jurisdictions to help them with their plans.

Some communities may want a group of local senior leaders to jointly determine whether to order an evacuation, since evacuating a city like Fargo is “a major, major decision,” Wilz said.

Jerry Hjelmstad of the North Dakota League of Cities supported the bill, saying the designated commanders would only have authority in situations where there is no time for the mayor to declare an emergency.

Hjelmstad said the mayor would take precedence if there is time to be involved, such as a situation that builds up over time like flooding.

Sen. Stan Lyson, R-Williston, said the bill would provide uniform policy across the state.

Sen. Carolyn Nelson, D-Fargo, said the $500 fine for ignoring an evacuation order “seems like a slap on the wrist.” Wilz agreed, but said it’s difficult to get approval for tougher penalties.

He pointed to legislation being considered now about how much to increase the fines against drivers on closed roads.

No one opposed the bill. The Senate Judiciary Committee did not take immediate action.