Think of the children when disasters strike

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Amid the backdrop of a new Congress and administration and the continued divisiveness from a hard-fought election, the need for governing continues. Among this is ensuring that the bipartisan work on improving our nation’s disaster resilience moves forward: primarily the ability to meet the unique needs of children in disasters.

Children represent nearly a quarter of the U.S. population — a massive cohort impacted by a disaster that is dependent on the rest of the community. Children lack the capacity to advocate for, and in some cases, event articulate their needs. So they require a higher level of attention in our planning, assessments and recovery frameworks.

Most recently, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the House of Representatives to ensure that the needs of children are included in the thinking and planning for a disaster throughout the Department of Homeland Security, the Homeland Security for Children Act (H.R. 1372).

Among other things, this bill:

  • Directs the Federal Emergency Management Agency to integrate planning for children in disasters into all facets of response, and includes the appointment of a technical expert;
  • Integrates feedback from organizations that represent children into the work of the undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans; and
  • Integrates the House and Senate Homeland Security committees into the conversation and accountability process to ensure the needs of children are met.

This bill represents more than a piece of legislation. It represents an important philosophy: that the wellbeing of children in disaster situations must be part of all of our disaster planning and not relegated to an annex or a specialist with one seat among hundreds at an emergency operations center.

This kind of thinking could not be more timely or important.

Our work with the Resilient Children/Resilient Communities Initiative demonstrates that, as a nation, the readiness of families is far from where it needs to be. A national survey we conducted reminds us that nearly two-thirds of households do not have adequate plans for a disaster, or have no plans at all. Over a third of households are not familiar with their school’s evacuation plans, and over 40 percent believe schools will resume within a week of a major disaster.

But our data is not the only evidence of the challenge in meeting this need.

In 2010 the congressionally established National Commission on Children in Disasters provided a report of recommendations to better meet the needs of children in a disaster following the response to Hurricane Katrina. While much work has been done, according to Save the Children’s Disaster Report Card, 10 years after Katrina, many of these recommendations remain a work in progress.

In a recent keynote to the Arkansas Early Childhood Association, Dr. Lori Peek, co-author of “The Children of Katrina” with Alice Fothergill, looked beyond the statistics and provided several touching stories about the vulnerability left in lives of individual children after the storm, and how the power of community was often the difference in whether a child was able to thrive or never fully recover.

And that is why this issue is so important.

When a disaster strikes, the lifetime trajectory for the children is disrupted. The ability to understand and accommodate their needs is vital, not only to their future but to our own.

Research has also shown that children are the bellwethers of recovery, and that the trajectory of a community after a disaster is closely linked to the recovery of its children. But these needs are not often understood and are lost in the cacophony immediately after a disaster.

FEMA and its partners must continue to build capabilities to ensure that we are addressing the unique needs of children throughout disaster operations, such as through the provision of commodities, evacuation and reunification. In addition to this, we must go beyond planning within our current paradigms.

There are many toolkits, checklists and guidelines that have been produced at a national level, but we have not fully built the infrastructure for bringing these resources to the state, local and community levels, where most of the work occurs. This requires a holistic approach that goes beyond the creation of resources, and requires investing in a child-focused disaster ecosystem, designed to directly support the teachers, childcare providers, local responders and other “boots on the ground.” 

And, of course, when we speak of “whole of community,” we should include those already at the table, as well as those who have not yet been fully engaged in our preparedness coalitions. This includes bridging the divide between health and emergency management coalitions and better engaging schools, childcare providers and private-sector organizations as well as other sectors of our communities.

It is our responsibility as emergency managers and disaster professionals to preserve the opportunity that children’s lives represent, so they can be productive members of the workforce, civically engaged and looking out for those in need when their time to lead comes. If this opportunity is lost, society not only loses these benefits in the future, it must absorb the cost of those who succumb to the downward spiral of despair, addiction and/or chronic unmet mental health issues that too often lead to a lifetime of interaction with the criminal justice system.

Infusing the needs of children in disaster in all of our thinking can be made as an argument of economics, recognizing the human infrastructure that children represent and the cost of failing to recognize it. It can be made in terms of disaster resilience, and the symbiotic relationship that children and their communities exist within. Or it can simply be made in terms of the promise that this nation affords to all who call it home.

Whichever argument drives you to action, there is an opportunity. The legislation working its way through Congress and our work is a step in this direction. But the need far surpasses the current levels of advocacy.

Ultimately, the context of our future prosperity will be set by the actions that we take now. It is within our capacity to ensure that those growing into the next generation of leaders are not stymied by the uncertainty that disasters can cause, and that all children are able to experience their right to thrive.


Jeff Schlegelmilch, MPH, MBA, (@jeffschlegel) is the deputy director for theNational Center for Disaster Preparedness(NCDP) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He has over a decade of experience in developing programs for community resilience and public health preparedness. He is also the principal investigator and project director for theResilient Children/Resilient Communities Initiative, a three-year partnership between NCDP and Save the Children funded by a grant from GSK.

Richard Serino is currently a distinguished visiting fellow at Harvard University, National Preparedness Leadership Initiative and a senior adviser at MIT’s Urban Risk Lab. He served as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s eighth deputy administrator, from his confirmation in October 2009 through 2014. Prior to his appointment as deputy administrator, he served as chief of Boston EMS and assistant director of the Boston Public Health Commission. He is also a member of theNational Children’s Resilience Leadership Board, as part of the Resilient Children/Resilient Communities Initiative.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Emergency management Federal Emergency Management Agency Natural Disaster

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