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.

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