As the prospect of escalating conflict looms over Venezuela and the Korean Peninsula, it is important to revisit the theme of evacuation planning and preparation. Political and environmental crises over the years afford us the opportunity to discuss the contents of your fly-away bag, considerations to take when planning an evacuation route and the importance of coming up with your own plans instead of relying solely on others. This guidance still holds up and we hope that readers in Venezuela and on the Korean Peninsula are reviewing their emergency evacuation plans. Thanks to dozens of case studies looking at previous evacuations during crisis events, there are further lessons to consider, particularly for private individuals and companies that have their own evacuation plans in place.
If events in Venezuela are anything to go by, the window of opportunity for evacuation is narrowing. The United States already sent home dependents of embassy staff in July and every month the number of international airlines servicing Venezuela drops. Foreigners choosing to stay in Venezuela may be counting on their home government to rescue them if diplomatic missions decide the escalating risk requires a full-scale evacuation. Relying on embassy efforts to get out of a country can mean the difference between life and death. But such efforts are typically chaotic, traumatic and highly disruptive. Companies or individuals who need to maintain a semblance of continuity during crisis events should have their own plans in place.
The U.S. Department of State has a lot of experience evacuating from crisis areas, and the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training maintains a collection of oral histories recounting the nitty gritty details from most of them. While the idea of "diplomatic evacuation" tends to conjure images of helicopters landing on rooftops, or Marines fighting back mobs at the embassy gate, it does not have to be so dramatic. For those who need to maintain continuity, there are far more orderly ways to go about quickly leaving a country.
The April 1975 evacuation of Saigon is rightfully seared onto the collective conscience. But while CH-47 Chinooks were ferrying load after load of people out of Saigon, the U.S. Consulate General in Can Tho conducted a harrowing, but far less dramatic evacuation 160 kilometers (100 miles) to the southwest. As the fall of South Vietnam loomed, U.S. officials there and in Washington drew up several evacuation scenarios — one of which relied on maritime routes. The consulate in Can Tho assessed this plan as the most viable one and started pre-positioning barges with supplies along the Mekong River so that once the evacuation order was issued, the consulate staff and other Americans in the area could make their way downriver to the flotilla awaiting them at the mouth. The evacuation from Can Tho receives far less attention than the evacuation of Saigon because it was less dramatic — which might be bad for movies but is very good for business continuity. The lesson is; when planning evacuations, consider all viable means of transportation. Preparing alternate forms of transport ahead of time can save your neck later.
Choosing a specific evacuation route is just as important as the means. Roads can be closed, airspace restricted or ports blockaded during a crisis. Consider the strategic importance of any chosen evacuation route. In 1991, the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia, found itself cut off from the airport and had to rely on a helicopter evacuation instead. In times of political conflict, airports are typically high-value military objectives and often areas of intense fighting. Trying to fly in or out may be overly dangerous or impossible if runways are damaged.
Emergency evacuations are often circuitous endeavors. The first priority is to "get off the X" and out of immediate danger, and then figure out where to go from there. During the 1985 evacuation from Uganda, U.S. Embassy staff and their families had to first drive to Nairobi, Kenya, to board planes back to the United States. The further a crisis descends, the more complicated evacuations become. As airlines drop services in Venezuela, an evacuation plan that relies on air travel becoming untenable, especially if airports play a role in the crisis. This is where backup plans involving driving to a different airport (perhaps even in a different country) or a seaport for a maritime evacuation become all that more important.
When contingency planning a way out of a crisis, maritime routes should always be considered where practical. Even those who evacuated Saigon by helicopter ultimately landed on U.S. Navy ships, which then made their way to the Philippines. Looking to a more recent example, the 2006 evacuation of Beirut, the United States chartered a cruise ship to evacuate its citizens. But make no mistake, these evacuations aren't vacations at sea. Those who secure a spot on an evacuation craft are extremely limited to what they can bring on board — typically one small bag — and subject to long, uncomfortable waits. Depending on the expediency of the situation, complex emergency logistics are often worked out on the fly. Evacuations invariably require hard sacrifices, like leaving behind less portable assets (such as houses or vehicles) and are followed by weeks or months of limbo as evacuees figure out what's next. But for those who opt out of organized evacuations and stay behind, the consequences can be far worse.
The Observer Effect
Evacuations, like the disasters that trigger them, rarely occur in a vacuum. The decision to extract people from a country can send reverberations through an ongoing event, influencing the situation itself. To borrow a term from physics, we'll call it the "observer effect" — when the act of observing a phenomenon changes the phenomenon itself. The result is difficult to predict. The direr a crisis becomes, the more pressure is put on foreign diplomats, expatriates and tourists to respond in a way that gets them more involved than perhaps they are comfortable with getting. Two examples best illustrate how the observer effect can reverberate to worsen a situation.
Fighting had been escalating in the Congo following its independence from Belgium in 1961. United Nations troops were dispatched to help bring calm, but soon they became targets, too. The United States started escalating its material support to the UN mission, which dragged the United States into the conflict by association. Local U.S. missionaries, who had generally enjoyed good relations with locals, came under increasing pressure because of their perceived connection to the UN mission. The security situation massively deteriorated as the U.S. mission became a target and rush ensued to evacuate its staff, dependents and citizens. During any crisis, private interests can become a target simply because of their affiliation with others, and good intentions designed to defuse tensions can exacerbate them instead.
The second instance occured during the 1989 student protests in China. The United States and other foreign observers were keeping a close eye on the political unrest out of professional interest. Escalating tensions eventually attracted the attention of major news outlets, which sent correspondents to Beijing. Given the political sensitivity of the protests, Chinese authorities were wary of the international attention. As the Chinese government began its crackdown, the diplomatic quarter in Beijing started taking fire. The U.S. ambassador at the time, James Lilley, later recounted that diplomatic residential blocks were being strafed and that the U.S. Embassy received warnings of a pending raid by Chinese police. Lilley called the increasing hostilities against foreign interests a Chinese effort to "close the door and beat the dog" — a Chinese proverb to describe the government's desire to punish the student dissenters in private, without the world looking on. The increasing violence, and increased targeting of U.S. interests, led to an evacuation of U.S. citizens and embassy dependents from Beijing — including the press. Eventually, Chinese authorities cleared Tiananmen Square and put down the protests, but they made sure to remove as many potential witnesses as possible before they did.
The observer effect has already affected Venezuela. In 2016, commodity shortages caused foreign companies such as Kimberly-Clark to scale back their operations, which caused shortages of consumer goods. The shortages triggered criticism from the Venezuelan government that foreign companies were manipulating the market. Instead of working with the companies to resume production, the government seized factories. Such hostile measures from the government in response to drawdowns shows how a foreign entity's reaction to a crisis can in turn escalate the crisis. While gradual drawdowns are generally the smoother and more stable approach to leaving a troubled area, governments under pressure may bristle at the negative light cast upon them. Private entities seeking to avoid political involvement may find themselves at the center of a political scandal either by association (as in the Congo) or because their actions are seen as embarrassing the host government (as in China).
Protecting Assets as Well as People
In 1977, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow caught fire. Staff had to evacuate the building as the local fire service responded to the blaze. While it was later determined the fire was an accident, the Soviet intelligence services capitalized on the incident: Some of the firefighters who entered the building were actually KGB officers, looking to exploit the unique opportunity to rummage through the embassy. Still, American personnel worked as escorts alongside the firefighters to make sure that nothing was amiss and some especially sensitive areas of the embassy were left to burn because they were better destroyed than exposed to the scrutiny of the Soviet Union's security services.
Many people show valor and courage during crisis events, but just as many see a crisis as an opportunity to loot and pillage. Foreign compounds, especially in developing countries, are usually areas of higher living standards. When disaster strikes and security falters, opportunists move in to pick up the scraps. Leading up to the 1991 evacuation from Mogadishu, U.S. Embassy staffers were instructed to leave keys in the ignition of their cars so looters could just drive off with them rather than risk violent confrontations. The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, experienced a similar situation when Houthi rebels stole embassy vehicles from the compound shortly before evacuation in 2015. When vehicles are soon to be abandoned anyway because of evacuation, such sacrifices are relatively small. However, there are some materials that can't be abandoned. Confidential documents, sensitive technology and, in some cases, defensive weapons could fall into the wrong hands. During an evacuation, there is usually not enough space to take these things, so staff have to resort to destroying them.
In a private business environment, destroying intellectual property, personally identifiable information, sensitive material and technology may be acceptable if there are backups elsewhere, but unique artifacts are much better off evacuated under more controlled circumstances. In a place such as South Korea, a hub of technology and scientific research, multinational corporations and research institutions are pursuing make-or-break projects that would be devastating if destroyed in fighting but perhaps even more damaging if they were compromised by rivals. While the risk of a major evacuation from Seoul or the larger Korean Peninsula seems to be much smaller than in Venezuela, the impact would be several magnitudes larger because of the value of intellectual property stored there versus Caracas. These kinds of considerations must be taken into account when planning an evacuation and making contingency plans.
Options Offer Flexibility
It is impossible to be completely prepared for an evacuation because there are simply too many unknowns and, because of the observer effect, our own actions can affect the outcome. Options need to be in place ahead of time so you can be flexible on how to carry out the specifics. Venezuela and the Korean Peninsula are hot points now but next year or even next month, the country or region in the hot seat could be different. Natural disasters or other forms of unexpected crises regularly catch us by surprise. Instead of waiting until a situation deteriorates to prepare and practice an emergency plan, draft plans during times of stability and peace. Develop trip wires that everyone agrees will signify what to do and when. Setting expectations and sticking to plans is one of the surest ways to stay calm during a crisis and prevent complacency. Doing this during peacetime not only allows an organization to make plans with a level head, but regularly drilling for emergencies means that when a crisis emerges, a continuation of drills will raise less suspicion than the beginning of new ones.
Relying on foreign government evacuation procedures may ensure that people get out alive, but it won't ensure any sense of continuity in their lives or work. Designing and implementing a plan and getting out before the window of opportunity is too narrow is an imperative that cannot be ignored.