Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 17, 2011

Preparing for our Nation’s Children – It Will Happen Here

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Preparedness and Response — by Arnold Bogis on March 17, 2011

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.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 18, 2011 @ 1:41 am

Thanks Mr. Lord for this post!
One disclaimer should be filed IMO to your (Mr. Lord’s] conclusions! His lead paragraph is factually incorrect.
It states:
“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.”
The US essentially non-repsonded in Haiti and this will be a long-term cause of concern world wide. IMO of course. After all with 240,000 confirmed dead and then a cholera epidemic there should not be much argument that no functioning government in Haiti exists and pretending that is the case must be driven by other factors that were totally and absolutely detrimental to response. We (the US) will be hearing about Haiti again in the future.

The rest of the post is a useful reminder but perhaps it might be useful to note how children came to be ignored in emergency preparedness in the first place. There was no family preparedness effort before the enactment of the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950 Public Law 920 of the 81st Congress repealed by Public Law 103-337 in 1994. But throughout the civil defense program era from 1951 to 1994, civil defense policy which carried over into EP generally there was a family preparedness program. The treatment of children was totally within the scope of treatment of the family as a preparedness unit including family sheltering concepts. Perhaps the trashing of children generally was in fact what should have been recognized earlier but note that even schools which had children for 9 months of the year did little to prepare except to plan to redistribute the children back to their parents in an emergency. The first efforts, primitive though they may have been to ensure children adequate protection came when the REP {Radiological Emergency Preparedness Program] and FEMA/NRC regulatory guidance in NUREG 0654 required specific planning for school age population within the 10 mile EPZ [created to implement the EPA PAG’s for depositional material] and ensure their safety.
AS we now know during Hurricane Katrina a massive separation of children from their parents and guardians, perhaps in excess of 300K, for period of less than a day to permanently occurred. This focused attention on children and the fact that as a society we could no longer assume that a family unit in law or fact protected children. So the focus on children is a good one in my opinion.
As society changes so does Emergency Preparedness and planning. Special populations, which I define as those under the care of others during some or all of any portion of the day 24/7/385 must focus on ensuring those caregivers provide to those they care for the appropriate preparedness and even if necessary evacuation.
And Mr. Lord’s worry that responsibility will shift to the federal government and blame when things go wrong is a good one. But perhaps one should analyze all federal programs, functions, and activities as being a function of STATES and their local government failures. Disclosure: I was a fed on military and civil service duty for 34 years. And my father lived most of his life and died as a civil servant running the VA social services program.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

March 18, 2011 @ 6:19 am

I am sympathetic to the needs of children, but the Japan disasters have pointed out a new set of needs — aid to large number of displaced elderly people.

See today’s NYTimes:

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 18, 2011 @ 11:02 am

This month’s Natural Hazards Observer from the Hazards Center of the Univ. of Colorado has a lead story on children and disasters.

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