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As Tornadoes Strike, Congress Drops the Ball

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Tornadoes of historic proportions are turning towns across the Southeast into trash heaps. Families are homeless, hundreds of people are dead, kids and families are crowded in shelters and the devastation will scar the region for years.

Americans are watching in horror and, in a sign of the times, with an uneasy sense of familiarity as well.

Footage of unprecedented disasters destroying communities in the United States and around the globe has become unsettlingly commonplace. Tragically, what has also become commonplace are disaster responses that have been disasters in and of themselves.

  • Following Hurricane Katrina, the last of more than 5,000 missing kids wasn't reunited with her family until six months after the levies broke.
  • Following many recent U.S. catastrophes, shelters didn't have family-specific areas or have enough diapers, portable cribs and other vital supplies.
  • More than 80 percent of ambulances don't carry equipment specifically designed for kids' smaller bodies.

The failure to protect our kids isn't just a moral failure, it's a canary in the coal mine.

Simply put, if we're not prepared to protect our most vulnerable citizens, then we're not prepared as a nation.

That's why a bi-partisan Congressional coalition worked with the Bush White House to establish the National Commission on Children and Disasters in 2008. The Commission has been something of a bulldog, cutting through red tape, forcing change and stepping into the field.

Working alongside an aggressive and energized Obama Administration, the Commission helped bring the federal government a long way, with kids' needs now a priority across the federal bureaucracy.

A great deal of this positive movement is because President Obama empowered FEMA with an activist director, Craig Fugate, who is as much an advocate for disaster victims as he is an agency head.

Still, a lot of work needs to be done, particularly in the states. Save the Children's U.S. Programs issued a landmark report last year that found only 12 states (including Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi) meet minimal standards for protecting kids.

And much more work needs to be done at the federal level, including assuring an adequate stockpile of anti-radiation medicine in proper doses for children, a need made clear by the crisis in Japan.

Ironically, just as the tornadoes struck, Congress sat idly by as the Commission shut down this week, without providing a blueprint for its unfinished agenda. This happened despite the efforts and leadership of Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Thad Chochran (R-MS), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Harry Reid (D-NV) and Congresswoman Corrine Brown (D-FL).

Just as alarming, without the Commission, which I chaired, there is no empowered watchdog over the White House, Congress, FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security and over the states, where some of the biggest gaps remain.

With this aggressive advocate gone, smaller organizations will have to pick up the slack, including Save the Children's U.S. Programs. In fact, we're offering assistance to three governors in tornado-struck states.

Ultimately, we need Congress to do more, not less, when it comes to protecting America from disasters. No one expects the pace of disasters to slow and no one thinks terrorists have given up. No one, perhaps, except some members of Congress.