Protecting the children
Washington County, others study response to kids’ needs in disasters
The recent series of small earthquakes in Northwest Arkansas is a reminder that disasters can happen at any time, and with little notice. Earlier this year, the state also experienced severe flooding that damaged many homes, roadways and tragically led to several deaths, including young children. These events can be cause for alarm, or they can be a call to action to better prepare ourselves and our communities.
For those who are parents, your top concerns are likely with your children. If your children are not with you, how would you reunite with them? What are the emergency plans for their school, preschool, or after-school program? And how prepared is your county to meet the unique needs of children in disasters?
A national survey released last year by the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute found that 35 percent of households with children are not familiar with their schools’ evacuation and emergency plan, and 41 percent do not know where their children would be evacuated to during a disaster. While much of the nation remains unprepared, Washington County is taking steps to do better for our children in a disaster.
For the last two years, Washington County has been working with National Center for Disaster Preparedness and Save the Children on the Resilient Children/Resilient Communities Initiative. This three-year initiative is funded by a grant from biopharmaceutical and health care company GSK. It is mobilizing local stakeholders throughout the county to assess gaps and create child-focused disaster planning that will serve as a model for other communities throughout the United States.
This work is being coordinated by a Community Resilience Coalition convened under this initiative by Child Care Aware of Northwest Arkansas, the Washington County Department of Emergency Management and more than 30 local partners.
Through the coalition, a tabletop exercise was convened last fall that simulated a major earthquake, and how Washington County would respond as a community to the immediate and longterm needs of children while also responding to the greater disaster. This exercise was valuable in helping to guide planning efforts, as well as in forging relationships across sectors that include child-serving institutions, emergency management,
first responders, public health, hospitals, community-based organizations and private-sector partners.
Coalition partners are also working to provide information to parents and families on preparedness through trainings and participation in events such the Natural’s baseball games, and by conducting “prep” rallies with Save the Children at local schools and other child serving organizations.
Because children rely on the whole community for their well-being and development, they similarly rely on the whole community to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters with their unique needs in mind. As the recent earthquakes demonstrated, a disaster, whether natural or man-made, can strike any part of Arkansas at any moment without warning. But it doesn’t have to be a major disaster to alter children’s lives. A house fire, a tornado that destroys a child care center, or a flood that requires evacuation to a shelter all uproot children and families from the routine they need to thrive.
When communities aren’t prepared, even little disasters become big disasters. It is incumbent upon each community and family to take responsibility to prepare and protect children. Washington County is facing that responsibility in a way that will not only benefit the county but will serve as a model for other communities across the country.
Jeff Schlegelmilch is deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and project director for the Resilient Children/Resilient Communities Initiative. John Luther is the director of the Washington County Department of Emergency Management. Erin Lauer is the community preparedness manager for Save the Children.