another late summer full of deadly tropical storms and hurricanes. It’s scary enough if you are an adult in harm’s way. But what if you are a child?
Fortunately, Hurricane Gustav did not turn out to be “the mother of all storms,” as New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin predicted, but new storms heading our way in the Atlantic Ocean - including Ike and Josephine - give us ample reason to remain vigilant and pay attention to the needs of our children.
While federal, state and local officials deserve praise for the way they managed the evacuation of the Gulf Coast including New Orleans prior to Gustav, improvements are still needed in how we provide assistance to children.
Save the Children staff members, who worked in more than 20 evacuation centers in Louisiana and Mississippi this last week, found some shelters welcoming children and providing for their needs, while others were poorly prepared. We found one shelter so overwhelmed there was no room for children to gather and play in a supervised area. Other shelters, however, ensured that safe spaces for children existed because the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross, Children’s Disaster Services and Save the Children had planned for them in advance.
The American Red Cross worked with Save the Children to place large kits filled with children’s supplies in 15 different locations across Louisiana and Mississippi a year ago. As a result of this planning, thousands of displaced children had access to crayons, drawing paper, teddy bears, toy trucks, board games, jumping ropes and reading materials when they arrived at many evacuation centers. Many children also received their own evacuation backpacks filled with comfort and hygiene items when they arrived at the shelters. The backpacks proved to be a big hit with the kids.
Still, there was not enough planning for the needs of thousands of infants and toddlers. As part of the Mass Care Committee, Save the Children was asked to provide diapers, wipes and other essential materials to shelters. We delivered more than 30,000 diapers, but that was not enough.
In fact, after two days , Save the Children made an urgent appeal for infant and toddler supplies, and Toys ‘R’ Us responded, providing 45,000 diapers, baby wipes, baby shampoo and 200 infant cribs for shelters in Louisiana
We also found many shelters lacked laundry services for families, and showers and toilets often failed to work properly. In addition, mothers were forced to bathe their children in sinks used by hundreds of other shelter residents. Maintaining proper hygiene for displaced children and families remains a major issue.
So what’s next? One critical factor in the recovery of the region and a return to normalcy for everyone - from schools to corner gas stations to multibillion dollar corporations - is the return of safe, reliable, high-quality child care. Without child care, parents cannot go back to work. Without child care, store owners cannot clean up, restock and reopen, and corporations cannot keep employees on the job.
Three years after Hurricane Katrina, only 41 percent of New Orleans’ child care facilities have reopened. Lack of child care facilities has kept too many working parents at home and not working, or out of the region altogether.
Congress can help by passing new legislation. H.R. 2479, the Emergency Child Care Services Act, would designate “emergency child care” as a critical service after a terrorist attack, major disaster or other catastrophic event, ensuring federal assistance for this essential service.
Furthermore, H.R. 5766, the Schools Empowered to Respond Act, would require schools to make emergency preparedness plans, practice with local first responders, and ensure their input is included in local and national emergency planning strategies.
Save the Children also urges states to adopt minimum requirements for child-care licensing, including requiring centers to maintain written disaster plans that are coordinated with local emergency responders; conduct evacuation drills in conjunction with local communities; develop reunification plans for children and families; and develop written procedures to provide for children with special needs.
With more than 11 million children under age 5 in some type of child care nationwide, we need to ensure that child-care providers are prepared to protect our children.
There will doubtless be those who say that with tax dollars in short supply, we cannot afford to retool America’s disaster response systems to meet the needs of children. I believe we can’t afford not to.
Mark K. Shriver is chairman of the National Commission on Children and Disasters and vice president and managing director of U.S. Programs for Save the Children.