Over the past few months, the Samoan tsunami, the California wildfires and the anniversaries of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina delivered sober reminders of our fragile sense of security and our extraordinary vulnerability to disasters.
But despite an unprecedented and relentless onslaught of natural and manmade catastrophes over the past decade, one of the tragic unlearned lessons that continues to haunt America is our failure to adequately protect children during disasters.
For years, disaster plans have been written largely to meet the needs of able-bodied adults. Anyone who has helped a child ride a bike, navigate an obstacle course or play sports knows that children have very different abilities -- both physical and emotional -- than adults.
A June 2009 report conducted by Brown Buckley Tucker found that only seven states have in place minimal safeguards to ensure that children are protected during a disaster. The study found that the vast majority of schools and child care facilities -- which care for 67 million children on any given weekday -- are not required to have plans for evacuations during a disaster and for family reunification following one.
To put this in perspective, stop and imagine what would happen if a dirty bomb struck your nearest downtown. What would a child care center do with your kids to keep them safe? How would they connect you with your kids so you could be together as soon as possible? And if you had to go to a shelter, would it meet the needs of everyone in your family?
Last week, as President Obama made his first visit to New Orleans as President, the National Commission on Children and Disasters delivered its first report to the President and Congress. The Commission was chartered by Congress in response to the shocking negligence revealed following Hurricane Katrina.
Following that catastrophe, reunification of children with their families was simply not happening for far too many families. In fact, it took up to ten weeks to connect 1,300 Gulf Area children with their parents. And following Ike and Gustav, we discovered that shelters didn't have nearly enough baby supplies like diapers, formula and cribs.
The Commission's report makes a series of recommendations including national standards for emergency shelters that better meet the needs of children, requiring child care facilities to plan for disasters, ensuring health services that meet the physical and emotional needs of children and the design and procurement of child-friendly emergency equipment used by first responders.
And an empowered senior-level kids advocate within FEMA would ensure that the needs of children are addressed at every stage of disaster planning.
We are working to make sure government does its part. But protecting children is a shared responsibility. That means all Americans should develop a personal disaster plan that includes being aware of plans for schools and child care facilities and the means to communicate with children during and after an emergency. There's a wealth of information about family emergency planning at www.ready.gov.
While there is little doubt that another large-scale disaster will strike an American city or community in the months or years to come, there remains too much doubt as to whether our government is ready to protect us. Now is the time to recapture our post-9/11 and post-Katrina sense of urgency and enact these low-cost, common sense solutions that will save and protect children's lives.
Follow Mark Shriver on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Mark_Shriver