A Decade After Katrina, Children Remain Vulnerable in Disaster Response

By Denisa R. Superville — July 15, 2015 5 min read
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Almost 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, nearly four in five of the recommendations made by a national commission on children in disasters have not been adopted, according to a report released Tuesday by the aid agency, Save the Children.

Only 17 of the 81 the recommendations in the 2010 report by the National Commission on Children and Disasters have been fully implemented; 44 are in progress; and 20 have not been addressed at all, according to the report, “Still at Risk: U.S. Children 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina.”

The report comes almost a decade after the storm hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, forcing about a million people to flee. Nearly 5,000 children were reported separated from their families—some for months—in the storm’s aftermath, according to the agency.

Children were deeply impacted by the disaster: Several thousand were displaced from their homes, enrolled in school systems away from their home communities, and grappled with the lasting emotional, mental, and physical toll of the storm.

The 2010 National Commission report on Children and Disasters made a series of recommendations to address children’s needs in 11 areas, including disaster management and recovery; mental health; child physical health and trauma; elementary and secondary education; emergency medical services and pediatric transport; evacuation; and housing.

The Save the Children’s report said that while there has been some progress in the decade, significant work remains unfinished and that the responses to the commission’s recommendations varied among states, localities, and school districts.

“Still at Risk” calls on Congress to:

  • Restore congressional cuts to mental health support programs;
  • Mandate that hospitals include pediatric emergency readiness and neonatal intensive care in their emergency disaster plans;
  • Mandate that states and localities that receive federal support include vulnerable populations in their evacuation plans, including children with special healthcare needs and families that do not have vehicles;
  • Create a national task force to monitor how federal agencies are implementing the recommendations in the National Commission on Children and Disasters report.

Save the Children also called for more funding, better coordination and communication, and the appointment of a point-person in the White House to coordinate disaster planning and response related to children across all federal agencies.

“A decade after the nation’s Katrina wake-up call, it’s unacceptable that children across the country still face unnecessary risks to their safety, health, emotional wellbeing and long-term development should disaster strike,” Carolyn Miles, the president and CEO of Save the Children, said a statement accompanying the report.

“We know children’s unique needs make them especially vulnerable during and after emergencies. Our nation’s children deserve better without further delay.”

Progress on the commission’s recommendations has been stymied by a lack of leadership; lack of funding; and inadequate coordination between federal, state, and local governments, the organization said.

According to Save the Children, between 2004 and 2012 less than one cent of every $10 spent on federal emergency preparedness grants went to activities targeting safety for children.

Jeanne-Aimee De Marrais, the organization’s senior director for U.S. emergencies, said the absence of accountability also has contributed to the slow implementation of the recommendations.

Among the areas of progress noted:

  • An increase in the number of states that meet the emergency preparedness standards for schools. Only the District of Columbia, Iowa, Missouri, and North Dakota do not require their K-12 schools to have “written, multi-hazard” preparedness plans. However, funding cuts to school emergency planning grants has slowed implementation, according to the report.
  • Standards that protect children while they are staying at shelters and provide them with age-appropriate supplies. However, this practice is inconsistently applied, the report notes.
  • A new searchable database, the Unaccompanied Minors Registry, to help make the process of reuniting families easier. The project by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children was funded by FEMA. Data sharing remains difficult, according to the report.

De Marrias and her colleague, Jessy Burton, the associate director of psychosocial programs at Save the Children, said the experience after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 revealed some of the progress that had been made in responding to children’s needs since Hurricane Katrina.

In areas affected by Hurricane Sandy, shelters were equipped with toddler supplies lists, though those were not consistently provided. And some residents in affected areas benefitted from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s crisis counseling program, which allows states to apply for post-disaster grants to provide psychological first aid to individuals in disaster areas, meet one-to-one with affected individuals, and refer them for further services.

But research and follow-up are still lacking, said Burton.

“There’s been improvement in terms of the crisis counselor programs,” Burton said. “But there are still gaps in pointing both mental health providers as well as individuals and families to really solid, evidenced-based programs.”

Strides have been made in basic preparedness, De Marrais said, but other areas, such as recovery support for childcare services, need more attention.

“We saw in Sandy, we saw it a few weeks ago in Texas with the floods—that when childcare programs are affected by a disaster, one of the most supportive things for children is to get the programs back up and running and to get the kids back into their regular programs,” she said. “No question—that’s very supportive for the families and the children.”

You can check out the full report here.

In addition to calling on state and federal officials to improve their efforts to protect children in disasters, the organization is also asking families to ensure that they are ready to respond appropriately in a disaster.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.