Hiding in Plain Sight: Helping Communities Better Protect Children When Disaster Strikes

By Erin Lauer

Since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, Save the Children has been responding to disasters all across the United States — from small local floods to the most destructive hurricanes and tornadoes in recent history, and everything in between. Despite the many differences in those storms, we have seen one commonality across communities in every corner of the country: far too often, emergency managers don’t always know where child care programs are located. Our smallest and most vulnerable children are sometimes hiding in plain sight, with early childhood programs in a wide variety of locations, including churches, schools, strip malls, hospitals and downtown office buildings.

In 2015, we launched a partnership with the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute to solve that. Funded by a grant from global healthcare company GSK, we’ve worked with two pilot communities — Putnam County, New York, and Washington County, Arkansas, to raise the visibility and inclusion of child-serving institutions like summer camps, public, private and charter schools, foster care agencies and, of course, early childhood programs, in community-wide emergency planning. This work has culminated in the launch of the Resilient Children Resilient Communities (RCRC) Toolbox, a set of resources designed to help communities plan for and better protect their youngest residents.

One of the tools I’m most excited about helps local emergency managers design a disaster preparedness exercise focused on exploring the unique needs of children during a disaster and the variety of agencies and organizations required to address those needs. Exercises like this are a critical tool for emergency management, as they test plans and procedures and show communities what areas might need more attention.

Earlier this year, as part of a larger community exercise, we worked with two child care programs in Washington County, Arkansas, to test the evacuation and shelter in place procedures they established with a full-scale exercise. One child care program evacuated a classroom of 12 students, put them on a school bus, and received them at another early childhood center over a mile away. For local leaders, it was a chance to see how these child care programs implement their plans, and what support first responders and other partners can offer to keep children safe. For the 12 boys and girls, however, it was a fun field trip to meet some new friends and play with some new toys. In fact, as they were leaving the evacuation location, one of the little girls asked “when are we going to have the fire drill Ms. Jennifer told us about?,” not realizing that their field trip had, in fact, been the drill. For one boy, the most exciting part of the whole thing was the chance to have a different snack at snack time!

Through resources like the RCRC toolbox and the Get Ready Get Safe initiative, Save the Children is determined to share the best information and resources, so that every community is ready to protect its children when disaster strikes.

Erin Lauer is a Community Preparedness Manager with Save the Children’s U.S. Programs.

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