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Published April 01, 2011, 06:45 PM

ND Senate Defeats Mandatory Evacuation Measure

Giving local officials power to order people from their homes in emergencies proved too much for the North Dakota Senate on Friday, with one lawmaker calling the idea "virtually the same as imposing martial law."

By: Dale Wetzel, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Giving local officials power to order people from their homes in emergencies proved too much for the North Dakota Senate on Friday, with one lawmaker calling the idea "virtually the same as imposing martial law."

North Dakota's homeland security director has been advocating the measure, which he said would be used only in circumstances where it was deemed necessary to save lives.

It would give a local "incident commander" who was in charge of directing emergency response to a flood, chemical spill or other incident the authority to order mandatory evacuations. Violators could be fined up to $500.

North Dakota law now gives the governor power to order evacuations. City mayors may issue similar orders, but Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, who is an attorney and former Grand Forks County commissioner, said she believed those declarations are made to protect local governments from lawsuits in case government services are lost, such as water supplies or fire protection.

"Some incident commander may think something is a matter of life and death. An individual may choose to think it's not a matter of life and death, and it's not for us in any particular sense, here, to decide who is right," Triplett said. "People have a right to make choices for themselves."

Senators voted 29-18 on Friday to defeat the measure. A supporter, Sen. Carolyn Nelson, D-Fargo, said she was confident the mandatory evacuation power would be used judiciously if put into state law.

An incident commander, such as a fire or police chief, would be supervising emergency response directly and be familiar with the conditions, and would not be "somebody sitting at a desk," Nelson said.

Evacuation orders would not come because of the possible loss of public services or having one's basement flooded, Nelson said. "It is solely for the preservation of life," she said. "That is what this is about."

Sen. Margaret Sitte, R-Bismarck, said she was troubled that evacuation power was being delegated to an unelected official.

"I just think this is an enormous overreach that is not necessary," Sitte said. "We're functioning just fine in North Dakota without this piece of legislation."

Triplett recalled how she and her family defied an evacuation order during a Red River flood in 1997 that swamped much of the city of Grand Forks. They were able to save their home from flooding as a result, she said.

"Giving an incident commander the authority to compel someone to leave is virtually the same as imposing martial law," she said. "I think that if we are going to be imposing martial law, it should come from the governor."

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