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Unsafe at any wind speed: Feds address pets, forget kids in hurricanes

In the lead-up to Hurricane Earl, we heard a word we’ve never heard before in disaster preparedness: “children.” in talking about the lessons of Katrina, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate told CNN: “One of the things we’ve got to be prepared for are children and infants.” Finally, someone at the federal level has gotten the message that children can’t be treated as short adults in emergencies, that they have different needs than grown-ups. That’s the good news. The bad news? with the worst of the hurricane season upon us, Congress hasn’t gotten around to doing anything to protect those kids.

The sad Katrina stories about homeless dogs and cats or desperate people refusing to leave their flooded homes without their pets moved lawmakers to act with what can be considered lightning speed for Capitol Hill. only a little more than a year after the storm, President Bush signed the PETS law, which requires FEMA to ensure “emergency preparedness operational plans (including evacuation plans) take into account the needs of individuals with household pets and service animals.”

The law also authorizes funding “for animal emergency-preparedness purposes, including the procurement, construction, leasing or renovating of emergency shelter facilities” to accommodate people with their pets and service animals in an evacuation. We’re happy for the dogs and cats; we wouldn’t want to leave our dog behind in an emergency, either. but we just wish the kids had some similar consideration.

Katrina separated more than 5,000 kids from their parents. Think how terrifying that would be. Some families didn’t find their kids for six months. but more than half the states still don’t require schools and daycare centers to have plans in place to reach children’s families in an emergency and reunite them with their kids. Daycare centers also aren’t required to have an evacuation and relocation plan in most states, and there are few provisions in place for kids with disabilities.

Some improvements did follow on the Katrina fiasco. in the storm’s aftermath, children in shelters saw and heard things children should never see and hear. there was no way to shield kids from what was going on around them — families with infants and toddlers lived in open spaces next to single young men. there weren’t enough cribs, diapers, bottles and pediatric medicines. there certainly were no toys or programs in place to deal with children’s fears or simply to occupy their time.

In international disasters, nongovernmental organizations instantly swing into action to provide all of those things for children and to embark on family reunification. Some of those organizations, such as Save the Children, where Cokie is a trustee, have prevailed on emergency-preparedness officials in this country to be more mindful of the problems of kids in shelters or FEMA trailer compounds. through their efforts, Congress created a National Commission on Children and Disasters, and the Red Cross and FEMA have worked with the commission to make shelters safer and friendlier for children.

Still, at a recent commission meeting, FEMA’s Fugate admitted: “Children are a part of every community, but too often in the past they’ve been left out of emergency planning or thought of only after the initial plan has been written.” he pledged to work to change that. but FEMA can only do so much. Congress must act if localities are to have the money to get schools up and running as quickly as possible — after Katrina, more than 50,000 kids only erratically attended school for an entire year — and fund daycare for small children so their parents can get back to work.

In the Senate, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican Lamar Alexander have introduced a bill that would do just that, plus provide medical care and mental-health counseling for kids. but it’s in legislative limbo because of differences among Democrats about whether payments for schools in affected areas would include nonpublic schools.

That disagreement is keeping the Congress from ensuring that states have adequate emergency plans in place to evacuate kids from schools and get them back together with their families as the legislation requires — that’s the very least that the lawmakers should insist on for our kids. Otherwise, when the next big storm comes along — and one will hit sooner or later — we could once again find children in unsafe situations, months elapsing before they find their families and out of school for far too long. but hey, there’s something to be grateful for — the pets should do all right this time around.

Cokie Roberts is the chief congressional analyst for ABC News. Her husband, Steven V. Roberts, is a professor at George Washington University and contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report. Their syndicated column appears in major newspapers around the country. They can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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