03/21/2011 03:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Japan: What if It Happened Here?

In a strange turn of events, a mind-numbing humanitarian crisis caused by this month's massive 9.0 earthquake, an enormous tsunami and hundreds of aftershocks has been nearly overshadowed by a growing crisis from damaged nuclear power plants along Japan's northeast coast.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of survivors -- men, women and children -- have been moving into shelters miles from their devastated communities. In these shelters people sit, shell-shocked and grieving, barely protected from the bone-chilling cold. Many of these survivors are being warehoused in primitive conditions with poor sanitary facilities, insufficient food and water, lack of access to vital medicines and incomprehensible anxiety and uncertainty.

At the end of the day, if it is ever possible to determine precisely how many people perished in this cascading disaster, the fatality count will surely exceed 10,000. And victims from the most vulnerable populations will be disproportionately affected: the elderly, the hospitalized, the homebound and, of course, children.

Children will have lost parents, and thousands of parents will never see their children again. And for many others who have survived, reunification of families will be slow and traumatic.

If the past is any guide, 9/11, Katrina, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis in Indonesia, China, Pakistan, Haiti and the rest of the large-scale disasters over the last decade tell us to expect severe psychological trauma for the entire affected population -- but children will suffer most.

Children didn't have the physical capacity to protect themselves during the quake and the flooding; they will be far more susceptible to the effects of cold and deprivation; and, they will most need specific support throughout what will be a most arduous recovery.

What's more, if there is a full meltdown in one or more of the damaged nuclear plants, and the winds are blowing toward the shelters, populations evacuated after the earthquake and tsunami may have to be moved again. And children will be the highest priority to receive pills to prevent thyroid cancer.

Whether or not Japanese authorities planned sufficiently to care for its children caught up in such horrific events is not yet clear. But it is at our own peril that we, in the United States, will fail to grasp the importance of making sure that children in this country are protected during and following disasters.

Unfortunately, in a case of particularly bad timing, the National Commission on Children and Disasters, chartered by Congress following Katrina, is about to fold up shop -- just when it is most needed.

If Congress doesn't renew the Commission, it will be leaving a powerful legacy as well as a great deal of unfinished business.

The Commission's achievements include changing the design of shelters and the supplies in them, getting the federal government to promote the needs of kids in preparedness grants to states, and helping to change the culture at FEMA to ensure that kids are front and center.

The Commission has uncovered glaring problems, including the shocking fact that 80 percent of ambulances don't carry equipment specifically designed to protect children. Only 12 states require minimal preparedness for child care facilities and schools. And, in relation to Japan and radiation, the Commission has found that our nation doesn't have the capacity to adequately stockpile and rapidly distribute iodine in proper doses for children.

After a decade of unrelenting and unprecedented natural disasters and terrorist attacks in the United States and around the world, the question of whether or not another tragedy will eventually strike the United States is clearly a matter of when, not if. That said, we have an opportunity to make sure that, whatever happens, the nation's children will be maximally protected. Reauthorizing the National Commission on Children and Disasters should be a Congressional priority.

Dr. Irwin Redlener and Mark Shriver are members of the National Commission on Children and Disasters.