Ring the alarm: it's time for US schools to have climate disaster drills

Ring the alarm: it's time for US schools to have climate disaster drills

With the Atlantic hurricane season upon us, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is forecasting that 2021 will be an above-normal hurricane season. It seems each year climatic hazards — most acutely hurricanes here in the United States — are becoming more intense and more destructive. Yet, our systemic responses to such hazards have evolved little. 

The federal government traditionally funds programs pre-disaster to mitigate the effects of hazards and post-disaster to assist communities to recover and rebuild. While funding vehicles may operate under different names and emphasize resilience more today than a decade ago, little attention is paid beyond physical infrastructure improvements or restoration — public or private. This is unfortunate as disaster management is more than government response and recovery. It is inclusive of a broader appreciation of disaster risk among the general public. Through a disaster risk reduction education campaign, such an appreciation can be achieved.

Despite a shared emphasis across government and civil society on mitigating the effects of climatic disasters, there is still a lack of true focus on disaster risk reduction education. For the amount of money spent annually in the federal budget and through emergency supplemental funds (through which a significant portion of disaster funding is allocated), little is spent on such education. As billions of dollars are now being disbursed under state and local fiscal recovery funds of the American Rescue Plan Act, there is an opportunity to reach a broader classroom audience in a new fashion.

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Teaching the science behind why we have more extreme heat or more intense droughts is not enough. It is vital to understand the human element and the interconnectedness in preparing for disasters — whether public health emergencies or climatic hazards — within one’s community. Just as fire drills and earthquake drills reinforce the importance of individual decision-making and the implications such decisions have on collective coordination, disaster preparedness needs to be taught with a similar, tangible level of understanding.   

However, it must go a step further to cover key learning objectives, from developing go bags to recognizing signs of heat exhaustion in loved ones to learning to avoid flood-prone roadways. The more such measures can be integrated into K-12 education as common practice, the larger its impact.

For too long, finding a suitable home for disaster risk reduction education within the standard curriculum model was held up by partisan debate at the cost of the future preparedness of students, their families, and communities. Still, there remains uncertainty about where disaster risk education belongs within the modus operandi of K-12 education. It may not fit comfortably within one discipline, let alone align with a given community's educational standards. For that reason, educators and administrators should look towards embedding disaster risk reduction education by leveraging current and past disaster events, trans-disciplinary lesson planning, and civic engagement (invite first responders as guest speakers) relevant to their locality among students, parents, teachers, administrators and local leadership. 

For an example of a country that has successfully emphasized disaster risk reduction education, Japan is a global model. In Japan, disaster risk reduction is seemingly approachable to the public and — just as important — is a civic responsibility. While its disaster response and recovery infrastructure are comparable to that of the United States, the experiences diverge when examining specific disaster risk reduction culture, which stems from education. National examples include educational campaigns in schools and communities, interactive science center-like exhibitions and annual disaster drills. These types of educational campaigns proved vital in the minutes after the Great East Japan Earthquake. School children knew to seek higher ground in an organized fashion as they had learned. Most recently, Japan has utilized virtual reality simulators to teach children about the dangers of flash flooding without even leaving their classroom. 

Undoubtedly, at some point before this year is out, Congress will approve an emergency supplement to fund disaster recovery following a climatic hazard somewhere in the United States. This funding has a positive impact on assisting communities in rebuilding and preparing for future hazards. However, there are uses for federal disaster funds beyond physical, private and public infrastructure that would be worthy of investment.  

Even if state and local governments dedicate a small fraction of new funding received under the American Rescue Plan Act into disaster education, most communities could benefit from curricula that teach disaster preparedness in ways commensurate with today’s momentum and climate crisis. True disaster risk reduction relies as much on physical capital as human capital. America’s classrooms are as good of a place to start as any to reduce disaster risk and become a more resilient nation.

Joshua DeVincenzo is an instructional designer at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. David Mazzuca is an instructor at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Earth Institute, Columbia University and former assistant director at the Sandy Recovery Division, State of New Jersey.