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. 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 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.”
We’re happy for the pets; we wouldn’t want to leave our dog behind in an emergency, either. but we just wish the kids had 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.
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 running as quickly as possible and fund daycare for children so their parents can get back to work.
In the Senate, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican Lamar Alexander introduced a bill that would do just that, plus provide medical care and mental-health counseling for kids. but it’s in legislative limbo. Congress must ensure 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.
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