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Another Gulf Coast Disaster...Are We Ready?

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Hurricane season doesn't officially begin until June 1st, but an expected "above average" hurricane season is already making an early entrance.

Not yet even a full-blown tropical system, Alex, now brewing deep off the Atlantic coast, isn't expected to evolve into a serious threat.

Nonetheless, for a disaster-weary nation, reeling from an oil spill that is now one of most horrific environmental catastrophes in history, the question to which we all want to know the answer is: Are we ready?

For America's kids, that answer is clearly: "No".

Earlier this month, the National Commission on Children and Disasters released its second major report, which revealed the modest progress of six vital federal agencies in better protecting children before, during and after major disasters. The government's ability to protect children during disasters puts a magnifying glass on our overall disaster preparedness since children are by far the most vulnerable Americans during an event.

The children at risk aren't just in the Gulf of Mexico or in range of the San Andreas Fault. In fact, 90 percent of U.S. children live in an area at risk of natural disaster and, of course, terrorists can strike anywhere. Still, for years, our disaster relief system simply didn't take into account the unique needs of children, much less fully protect them.

- Kids are safest following disasters when they are with their families, yet 67 million kids are in schools or child care on any given day, separated from their parents and often miles from home. A report from Save the Children last summer found that only seven states are meeting the most minimal standards to ensure that, if disaster strikes, children are reunited with their families and protected during and after the event.

- An astonishing 80 percent of emergency medical systems and ambulances are not fully equipped to treat children. And the majority of hospital emergency departments are ill-equipped as well.

- Shelters don't routinely count the number of children in a facility. This often leads to shortages of critical products like diapers, baby wipes and cribs.

There is some good news: the Commission's report found signs of progress in the design of safer emergency sheltering environments for children. The report, however, also showed that federal agencies made limited progress in pediatric disaster medical care and training. The report also found a need for the federal government to get states to improve their disaster preparedness plans in schools and child care.

Later this year, the commission will issue its third landmark report. None of these reports are simply a blueprint for action; they're an urgent call for action on the blueprint that's right under our noses.

This September, Americans across the country will remember Hurricane Katrina's fifth anniversary. We will recall the calamitous response to that disaster, during which some kids weren't reunited with their families for up to six months. If five years isn't long enough to learn the lesson that preparation for kids matters for all of us, then how long is?

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