After my visit to a Red Cross shelter in New Jersey yesterday, I am more convinced than ever that we must urgently do a better job protecting kids in natural disasters than what we have done so far.
Save the Children began emergency work in the US in a much bigger way after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, just over 7 years ago. I clearly remember the day of the storm when we made the decision to send a small team to Baton Rouge,
Louisiana, thinking they would be home in a week or so and kids and families would be well-served by the many agencies and services in the United States. It didn’t turn out that way. We ended up hosting major programs for children in the New Orleans area for over three years and started our annual National Report Card on Protecting Kids during Disasters in 2008. Sadly, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy this week shows we still have a long way to go to keep our kids safe and meet their needs after a disaster hits.
The report this past August shows that only 17 states meet the four basic disaster preparedness and safety standards for children in child care and at school to serve the needs of children in disasters. And unfortunately, New Jersey—the hardest-hit state—meets only 1 of the 4 criteria. New Jersey does not require child care facilities to have an evacuation/relocation plan; a plan to reunite families and children; or a plan for children with special needs. Recognizing the severity of the storm, New Jersey officials responsibly closed most schools early last week to allow children and families to prepare or evacuate—but state officials in storm-prone areas and across the country must prioritize children’s needs and make sure that states are prepared.
Just as we saw in Katrina, we also have a long way to go to make sure kids are safe after Sandy. While I didn’t see the dramatic scenes like those we saw at the Superdome in New Orleans after Katrina, families with young children in shelters are still living beside strangers, some of whom may not be safe. Bathroom and shower facilities need to be tightly monitored inside shelters to ensure the safety of kids. And I met many bored teenagers who have been in shelters for a week now (and are looking at least at a few more, potentially missing weeks of school), and parents overwhelmed with filing for assistance and trying to figure out what to do next.
These kinds of dynamics aren’t safe for kids. We’re dealing with these issues directly in shelters in New Jersey and New York, but emergency agencies like FEMA and state agencies need to continue to increase their focus on children in disasters and make sure we are always putting kids’ safety first.
In the meantime, Save the Children is doing our part to keep kids engaged and safe. You can read how Save the Children team member Steve Wells helped pull together a makeshift Halloween celebration at a shelter in New Jersey and how responder Penelope Crump hosted a much-needed tea party for a group of young girls. This may seem like nothing but fun and games, but for these kids it’s a moment to be themselves, to play with other children and to forget the winds, the water and the upheaval for a few precious moments.
As we get ready to go to the polls tomorrow and cast our votes, we must remember that it’s our responsibility—all of us, including regular citizens and government leaders—to protect kids from harm and help them bounce back from tragedy. So even though there won’t be any kids in the polling booth tomorrow, I hope you’ll keep them in your thoughts as we make decisions about their future—because a safe and secure future is what every child deserves.
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