How America is failing to protect its children

Story highlights

  • Late August marks 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina striking Gulf Coast
  • Mark Shriver: U.S. remains ill-prepared to protect children from disaster

Mark Shriver is president of Save the Children Action Network and was chairman of the National Commission on Children and Disasters from 2008 to 2011. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Every morning, Tineisha Mahoney wakes up wishing the last 10 years were a bad dream. In this alternate reality, it would still be August 28, 2005, in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. There would be no hurricane warnings, no race to evacuate. She would go to high school just like any other day.

Instead, the young mom awakens daily to see the box of ashes she keeps near her bed. After Hurricane Katrina, Mahoney held out hope for weeks that her dad had also evacuated safely. Some friends said they'd seen him on TV; others heard he was in Texas.
Mark Shriver
But when Mahoney and her family finally returned to their house, they found her father's remains inside. Her dad -- her best friend -- had drowned, his body too decomposed to bury. Since then, Mahoney has avoided returning to her childhood home, and, 10 years later, she says she doesn't know if she could make it through each day if not for her own children. "They say time heals all wounds," she says, "but I don't think that's true in certain cases."
    Even as communities have been rebuilt, Hurricane Katrina's impact on its child survivors endures a decade after the storm devastated the Gulf Coast. Hundreds of thousands of children were ripped from their homes, schools and communities. Many were stranded in unsafe shelters and temporary housing conditions -- sometimes separated from their families for weeks. Many witnessed death and lost loved ones. Traumatized children were routinely left without adequate services to help them recover, forever setting them back in school and life.
    Hurricane Katrina was a catastrophe for so many and served as a wake-up call to the nation. And yet, almost a decade after a deeply flawed response, our country is still ill-prepared to protect children from disaster.
    After the storm and its tragic aftermath exposed a widespread neglect of children's needs in U.S. disaster planning, President George W. Bush and Congress created the National Commission on Children and Disasters to investigate the gaps and recommend a course of action.
    During a comprehensive investigation, the commission, which I chaired, examined whether children's unique physical, medical, developmental and protection needs were accounted for in 11 areas of disaster planning. We found that in every area -- including mental health, emergency medical services, child care, education, shelter, housing and evacuation -- critical protections for children were absent.
    In our final 2010 report, we issued 81 recommendations that the federal government and partners should implement to ensure children's needs are accounted for in the nation's disaster preparedness, response and recovery capabilities.
    This week, Save the Children released new research showing that 17 of those recommendations -- just one fifth -- have been fully met. That means the United States is leaving the most vulnerable 25% of our population -- our children -- at tremendous risk. This continued neglect of children's needs is even more outrageous in an era when the impact of natural disasters is expected to increase, and terrorism and other manmade disasters pose real threats.
    The remaining gaps include a lack of federal funding for children's mental health -- leaving disaster-affected children without support to recover and resume their development. The country still lacks a national strategy to improve pediatric transport and patient care in the wake of disaster -- a decade after chaotic evacuations from New Orleans hospitals delayed rescue and proper care for critically ill newborns. And, more generally, there is a clear lack of accountability, across the federal government, in ensuring children's unique needs are addressed in emergency planning.
    So while we have seen some important progress, it is often piecemeal and incomplete.
    True, there are some brighter developments. Emergency planning for child care facilities and schools, for example, has seen significant progress -- 32 states now meet four basic emergency planning standards in those settings. That's up from four states in 2008.
    Also, there are national standards for emergency shelters designed to ensure children's safety and access to items such as diapers, formula and cribs. However, as we've seen in shelters after Hurricane Sandy, the recent flooding in Texas and elsewhere, this guidance isn't always carried out consistently.
    Ultimately, federal cuts to school emergency preparedness grants means plans often aren't implemented successfully. And overall, only a tiny portion of federal preparedness grants go to children's needs -- less than one-tenth of 1%, according to a recent Federal Emergency Management Agency report.
    The National Commission on Children and Disasters outlined dozens of actions the government could take to protect U.S. children better from disaster. As we approach 10 years since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, the president and Congress shouldn't wait for the next massive disaster to start monitoring and demanding action on these recommendations themselves.
    Katrina led to enormous, and often avoidable, suffering for many thousands of children yet, remarkably, relatively few child deaths. That may not be the case next time.