Guest author Gregg Lord reminds us how important it is to focus our attention on the youngest victims during a catastrophe. While much of the attention, and not unwarranted, has been on the vast elderly population in Japan, I believe this particular issue is of utmost importance.
Gregg Lord is a Commissioner with the National Commission on Children and Disasters. He is a retired Emergency Medical Services and Fire Chief with more than 30 years of experience in emergency response and disaster preparedness activities. He currently serves as a Senior Policy Analyst at the George Washington University Medical Center’s Homeland Security Policy Institute.
Over a year ago our nation was in the midst of a large disaster response and relief effort in Haiti. U.S. response was difficult for a variety of reasons, but many expressed that the difficulties were the result of an inadequate government and lack of preparedness or response capacity by the Haitian people.
Over the past year our nation’s homeland security enterprise has discussed the many issues and impediments involved in the Haitian response. These “lessons” should have provided significant incentive to our government to recognize the needs of a prepared nation. Moreover, it should have shed light on the incredible gaps that currently exist in preparation for a large scale incident such as Haiti and now Japan. Inherent in this gap is the ability to provide for our nation’s children when such devastation visits a community.
The Haitian people were ill prepared for the disaster and, without the support of the world, many more Haitians would have died since the earthquake due to injuries and infections. We now know that a disproportionate number of Haiti’s children have died in the post earthquake environment, some of whom could have been saved given the right expertise and equipment.
In any disaster children are the most vulnerable victims. Haiti’s population of children is higher than many countries, with nearly 40% being under age 14. The timing of the earthquake also meant that most children were still in school, the majority of which collapsed, causing significant death and injury to the school-age population. These issues and circumstances led to a horrific outcome.
Now another catastrophic event is unfolding. In this case it occurred in what many have called the “most prepared nation in the world.” Japan has a long history of dealing with large scale events and terrorism and as such have educated, trained and practiced for disasters. Yet despite their efforts it is clear that in a truly catastrophic event not even the “most prepared” can adequately respond. It is too early to try to evaluate the ongoing issues in the response and recovery in Japan, but it is not too early to recognize that once again children will be the most affected and least supported group during the response.
According to the organization “Save the Children,” many of the Japanese shelters lack child-safe areas. Disaster response teams usually lack any significant quantity of pediatric-specific medications and medical countermeasures such as Prussian Blue or potassium iodide in appropriate pediatric doses. Save the Children has sent teams to provide guidance to the Japanese government on creating environments for children that will aid them in recovering but, historically, disaster shelters in the U.S. have lacked child-specific areas and resources. The U.S. government has provided assistance in the form of Urban Search and Rescue Teams, but those teams lack pediatric-specific expertise and equipment. Although we continue improving our ability to deal with children disaster-specific needs, we are still not where we need to be.
Over the past two years the National Commission on Children and Disasters has worked diligently to identify gaps in our national preparedness and response enterprise as it relates to children and disasters. As a result of these recommendations, significant progress has been made within FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, but the real needs of children during a disaster can only be met by local communities and states. However, the fiscal issues confronting local and state governments continue to push the preparedness responsibility up to the Federal government and threaten to leave us unprepared. When an event occurs in this country and we lack an effective response at the local, state and Federal level, the finger pointing will begin. It will become quickly evident that our nation has ignored 25% of its population, our children. This begs the question, “Would our children be better off then those in Haiti or Japan if the earthquake happened here?” At this point I believe the answer is a qualified “maybe” at best.
This most recent event is horrific and the loss of life will be large, but we within the U.S. the homeland security enterprise must move now to convince policy makers in and out of Washington that preparedness is a shared responsibility that begins at the local level. It must be a political imperative at each level of government to learn from Haiti, and now Japan, so that when it is our turn we can manage the event and ensure that our children are the priority. On more than one occasion our elected officials have spoken of our nation’s children as “our most precious asset, our future.” It is time for local, state and federally elected officials to take that sentiment to heart and ensure that children are treated as our most precious asset, especially during times of a disaster. Buildings can be rebuilt, but our children can not be replaced nor can the nightmares of the surviving children be alleviated if we fail in our efforts.