In 2010 our center, the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, published findings based on research conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina describing children as the “bellwethers” of disaster recovery. To put it simply, if one wants to know how a community is doing after a disaster, look to the children. If they are doing okay, then the community is probably doing okay.

Children are dependent on many inter-related community factors that may influence their ability to bounce back after a disaster. Such factors include the conditions of schools, daycares, healthcare providers, and household and neighborhood environments. If one factor is falling short in supporting a child’s needs, it can affect their entire circle of security. This is because children are not fully capable of mobilizing resources and independently adapting to a post-disaster environment. They rely on the whole community to do this.

Despite being fully aware of this effect, we continue to be woefully underprepared at all levels to meet the needs of children in a disaster. A survey we conducted of attitudes and opinions on preparedness found that nearly two-thirds (65%) of households do not have adequate plans for a disaster, or have no plans at all. Over a third (35%) of households are not familiar with their schools evacuation plans, and despite many high profile disasters, most Americans (51%) believe that help will arrive in under an hour in the event of a major disaster. Additionally, over 40% believe schools will resume within a week of a major disaster.

The Save the Children 2015 Disaster Report Card highlights that at a national level, 79% of the recommendations by the National Commission on Children and Disasters remain unfulfilled 5 years after its report to the President. It further finds that of every $10 spent in federal emergency preparedness grants, less than $.01 is spent on activities targeting children’s safety. At the state level, the report notes that 18 states and the District of Columbia lack minimum emergency planning standards for schools and childcare.

The National Children’s Resilience Leadership Board (NCRLB), an interdisciplinary group of thought leaders from academia, the private sector, local government, the non-profit community, and former federal officials was recently convened as part of the Resilient Children/Resilient Communities (RCRC) Initiative. The board identified three priorities to promote and improve community resilience for children in disasters: 1) Leverage Existing National Programs to promote community-based leadership among youth and child-serving institutions, 2) promote awareness and celebrate the successes of community resilience coalitions, and 3) implement sustainability standards for current and future community resilience coalitions.

These goals were devised to support the work of two Community Resilience Coalitions that are working on the ground at the community level as part of the RCRC Initiative. These goals were also developed to ensure that the institutions that serve children every day are appropriately connected and planning with local emergency management and first responder organizations. However, the implications of these goals go far beyond these two communities.

Preparing our communities to meet the unique needs of children in a disaster requires us to move beyond a diagnosis of the problem at the national level, and to begin our work on the ground in communities and among the institutions that serve our children every day.  The true champions of resilience are those who advocate for our children every day and know them by their first name. They are also those who work to improve the preparedness and vitality of the communities in which they live, and who remain there long after the sun-setting of preparedness grants and the departures of federal visitors.

The goal of the NCRLB is to provide an impetus to celebrate the work of these champions, and elevate their stories into the national dialogue to benefit other communities. This model is one that should be broadened into a national practice, where national policymakers and legislators are giving acknowledgements to community leaders. It is also their responsibility to fulfill the recommendations given by the National Commission on Children and Disasters, which states that the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA should provide “disaster preparedness funding, technical assistance, training, and more to local child serving systems.”

In doing so, not only will we ensure the resilience of our children in the face of disaster, but we will ensure the resilience of our communities and, ultimately, our nation.

Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, MPH, MBA is deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. Erin Sehnert is the Project Coordinator at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.