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When Life Gets Tough, Moms Get Tougher

Disasters can strike at any place, and any time. But, as Save the Children uncovered in its 15th annual State of the World's Mothers report, the devastation they leave in their wake impacts some more than others: Women and children are at the greatest risk and are 14 times more likely to die in a disaster than men.

I've met many of these mothers. They were huddled in a shelter in the Philippines, after Typhoon Haiyan destroyed their homes and livelihoods. They were also my own friends and neighbors who lost homes, businesses and belongings when Superstorm Sandy devastated the East Coast.

Our report, which was published with support from Johnson & Johnson, shows that children and mothers with the fewest resources often faced the most daunting challenges during emergencies. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, it took weeks for official relief efforts to reach hard-hit families living in some of New York City's low-income areas, such as Far Rockaway, Queens.

"This community was nowhere on any maps for five weeks for services, and for resources, and for help," said Aria Doe, executive director of The Action Center in Far Rockaway, Queens. "There were no excuses for poor neighborhoods to be passed by, because there was enough time to have put a plan into place."

In the Philippines, Typhoon Haiyan swept through the central part of the island nation, killing many and destroying housing, livelihoods and infrastructure across nine of the country's poorest regions. It damaged or razed more than 2,258 health facilities, including hundreds of village health stations, which provided primary health and childbirth services to people in smaller communities.

At the time of the typhoon, 250,000 women in affected areas were pregnant and almost 70,000 were expected to deliver in the first quarter 2014. The Save the Children team met a mother of two toddlers, Hazel Rapsing, 25, who went into labor at the peak of the storm, as her entire neighborhood evacuated. Her baby decided to come 10 days early.

"I was scared because the typhoon was getting really strong. I was wondering whether I would be able to give birth." Rapsing told our staff. "I was worried about what kind of treatment my baby would get. It was a state of emergency and everyone was busy. I was praying to God to take care of me."

Despite the storm, an ambulance arrived and took Rapsing to a birthing clinic, where she gave birth to a healthy baby boy named Ullicel. Rapsing's home was completely destroyed during the typhoon, so she and her family are staying with relatives until they are able to save up enough resources to rebuild their house.

While I cannot begin to imagine how frightening it must have been to go into labor during one of the most powerful typhoons ever recorded, having to protect your newborn as you're fleeing for your life can be just as terrifying for a mom. Abigail Matulac, 25, had given birth to a beautiful baby girl, Kazumi, only two weeks before Typhoon Haiyan hit the shores of Sicogon Island, where she lived in an isolated, low-income community with her husband and three small children.

Like most families in the area, they didn't expect the storm to be as intense and waited too long to evacuate. Once they had no choice but to leave, Matulac wrapped her infant in thick cloth to keep her warm. The wind was so strong that they couldn't even open the door of their house and had to climb out the window and then crawl up a mountain to find a safer place to shelter.
"I've been bleeding for a while after I gave birth and was afraid that I would have a relapse from the stress," said Matulac. "I was breastfeeding my baby during that entire time to help keep her calm and quiet."

The family was lucky to make it through the storm unscathed without needing medical services for their children, because an estimated 82 percent of the health facilities in the affected areas were damaged. As a result, 1.1 million people, including 163,000 children under 5, have inadequate health services.

Whether in the United States or the Philippines, all mothers strive to ensure that their children are protected and healthy when a disaster strikes. Fortunately, our evidence shows that we can save and dramatically improve the lives of all mothers and children, even in the most challenging places to live, if we invest in the services they need.