A Big Threat to Our Little Campers: Protecting Children in Disasters

November 30, 2015, Feature, by Sarah Thompson, MA

Four-year-old Didi plays with Save the Children staff member Sarah Thompson in the child-friendly shelter space set up at the Atlantic City Convention Center.“I have nothing left from my childhood but [my dad’s ashes] — and a lot of bad memories,” said Tineisha, 25. “Every day, even to this day, I’ll wake up like I want it to be August 28, 2005, and I’m waking up going to school and it’s all going to be one, big bad dream. They say, time heals all wounds, but I don’t think that’s true in certain cases.”

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, leaving 1,833 dead, forcing more than 1 million people from their homes and causing more than 300,000 children to enroll in new schools around the country.

Katrina, like many disasters, had the most lasting and negative impact on children like Tineisha, who still, 10 years later, struggle with emotional and developmental consequences of the storm. Following Katrina, there were more than 5,000 reports of missing children, some separated from their families for weeks and even months. Children lost family, friends and their most precious possessions with limited understanding and skills to cope. Their homes, schools and child care facilities were destroyed and along with them, their routine. Children are the most vulnerable in disasters, as these traumatic events can steal the very essence of what it means to be a child — security, innocence and play. 

On the Front Lines

From afterschool camps to aquatic programs, park and recreation professionals are on the front lines of ensuring children’s safety every day. They provide the structures and programs that help children thrive in familiar environments where they feel protected, and thus stand as a symbol of child safety within their communities. When a disaster strikes, this role is amplified. Park and recreation professionals often act as first responders — safeguarding those in their care, assessing the needs of local families and serving as a community stronghold. Facilities may function as a family reunification point or transform into shelters, housing those who have been displaced. Agencies may help coordinate the community-wide response, providing space for the emergency operations center.

In theory, we know that disasters pose a threat to our communities. We’ve seen it on television, we’ve received training during the onboarding process and we’ve conducted the occasional fire drill. But, there is a difference between knowing a threat and taking purposeful and meaningful action to ensure staff are equipped, families are educated and children will be safe. The truth is that disasters — natural, chemical or manmade — can strike anywhere at any time, sometimes with little or no warning. And when it does happen, will your agency be ready to protect children? Will staff know what to do when little eyes are looking to them for protection and comfort? Will you be ready to guide kids through the long-term recovery process, knowing that it’s these traumatic experiences that will frame their perception of the world going forward?

Unique Needs of Children in Disasters

Children are not just little adults. They have unique needs that make them vulnerable during emergencies and that need to be deliberately addressed in emergency planning. 

Reliance on Caregivers: Children can’t make emergency plans. They are physically and emotionally dependent on their caregivers, including coaches, teachers and leaders. During a disaster, if staff members do not know the plan and their role within that plan, children are left scared and at higher risk of harm.

Communication and Identification: Infants, toddlers and children with disabilities may not be able to verbally identify themselves or family members. Older children may not know emergency contacts. These needs hinder quick family reunification following a disaster. 

Mobility: Infants and toddlers are unable to walk and others may need to hold hands for balance, and move at a slow pace. Children with special needs or access and functional needs require extra help or special equipment for evacuation (e.g., wheelchairs, cribs, strollers, car seats).

Physical: Children’s bodies are smaller and less developed, putting them at greater risk of illness or harm during an emergency. For example, because children have thinner skin and take more breaths per minute than adults, they are more susceptible to harmful chemicals or smoke inhalation. 

Nutritional: Children require more fluids per pound than adults, which should be accommodated by keeping plenty of fluids in disaster supplies. Children can be picky eaters, so storing healthy and nutritious child-friendly snacks such as granola bars or fruit snacks with disaster supply kits is advisable.

Emotional: Children of all ages are deeply affected by experiences of death, destruction, terror and the absence of their parents or guardians during a disaster. In fact, children who have been affected by large-scale disasters are five times as likely to suffer from serious emotional issues as those who have not experienced a major disaster. Adult leaders’ reactions and responses to the disaster can often add another layer of stress. Children process these events with limited understanding and require specialized support to develop the knowledge and healthy coping skills needed to heal and recover.

Developmental: A disaster may disrupt the school year and participation in regular programs. Children may also fall behind when they struggle with long-term physiological or psychological issues following a disaster. These setbacks, without the appropriate intervention, can cause children to lag behind their peers educationally and developmentally, potentially changing the course or their lives and ability to thrive.

Routine and Comfort: Children depend on routine to help them make sense of their surroundings and feel comforted. Whether it is recreation time or story time, keeping schedules consistent following a disaster is crucial in helping children recover. Children also tend to be comforted by items they can touch or hold such as blankets, stuffed animals or toys. 

Leaving Children at Risk

During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina it became clear just how much children, who comprise 25 percent of the population, had been overlooked in federal, state and community emergency planning. In response, President George W. Bush and Congress created the National Commission on Children and Disasters, led by Save the Children, an international NGO with more than 100 years of disaster response experience, to assess these gaps that leave children at risk. In 2010, the commission issued its final report with 81 recommendations to improve the capacity of the United States to protect children before, during and after disasters. This year, a decade after Hurricane Katrina, Save the Children assessed our nation’s progress along these recommendations that cover everything from increasing access to mental health services to improving shelter standards and school and child care operations plans. The 2015 National Disaster Report Card on Protecting Children in Disasters found that an alarming 79 percent of the commission’s recommendations remain unfulfilled.

Making Change for Children

Park and recreation agencies are in the fabric of every U.S. community and have the resources and voice to be change agents for children in disasters. It’s a role that some communities have already embraced, utilizing previous experiences, core capacities and creativity to fill gaps in protecting children.

Don’t Wait for a Shake-up Call, Manhattan Beach, California

“When you aren’t prepared, when you don’t have the proper records, information and supplies ready to go, a small-scale emergency can turn into a catastrophe,” says Idris Al-Oboudi, recreation manager at Manhattan Beach Parks and Recreation in California. Learning from a devastating 1994 earthquake that destroyed one of their community centers, Al-Oboudi and Manhattan Beach used the devastating experience to improve plans and protocols.

“The earthquake was our shake-up call,’” adds Al-Oboudi. “It shook our confidence. You think you are prepared, but when it happens you’re faced with figuring out how you are going to continue to provide services that these families rely on. The emotional part is very important. We have to be in tune to children’s emotions when these things occur. Staff who can keep children constructively engaged make all the difference. As caregivers, we need to be prepared to protect them. That is our responsibility.”

One of the ways Manhattan Beach is improving its disaster plan is by organizing large-scale special events that require the coordination of multiple sectors and all staff. For example, its “Camp Out” events invite families to a community-wide picnic. Just as in a disaster shelter scenario, 12,000 people enter the facility within an hour, requiring coordination, meal distribution, children’s activities and facilitation. It’s a creative approach to preparedness that helps staff learn their emergency roles while continuing to build trust among children and families.

“We learned from the earthquake that we were not ready. Families were not ready, the community was not ready,” Al-Oboudi says. “It’s very important to reflect on these things. Sometimes, improving or practicing emergency plans sounds like a good idea, but then you procrastinate. Then, by not taking action, you leave yourself and the children you serve vulnerable to harm that could have been prevented.”

Provide Purposeful Practice and Training, Howard County, Maryland

“I’ve been through snowmageddon; Hurricanes Isabel, Sandy and Irene; and more,” says John Marshall, bureau chief of parks and recreation for Howard County, Maryland, who has more than 26 years of emergency leadership experience. “Preparation, training, mock and table-top exercises, as well as written plans, need to be tested, evaluated and re-written so that everyone understands their role and can respond quickly and efficiently to address the challenges at hand. The more work you put in on the front end, the better your result will be.”

Howard County purposefully makes children part of emergency planning. In addition to having robust emergency training and certification requirements for all child-focused staff, the county partnered with Save the Children to bring together leaders from health, school, child care and emergency management sectors to train staff on how to protect children in disaster shelters and how to best facilitate their healthy recovery.

For Marshall, like so many, the impetus to act stems from personal experience. “My initial thought when 9/11 occurred was just like any parent, I dropped what I was doing at work and headed out to pick up my child from day care,” said he says. “The next day, our department closed the parks thinking people would want to stay home with their families. What we learned was that what families really wanted was a sense of normalcy, and one of the best places to find that was in a park. Residents wanted to be able to take their children to the playground, where they could run around in an open field and just be able to be a child. That’s what was needed the most. As emergencies happen, we now try to open parks as soon as it is safe.”

Convene the Community, Moultonborough, New Hampshire

“It’s important to get yourself a seat at the table with emergency management and contribute to the community plan,” says Donna Kuethe, director of recreation for the Town of Moultonborough.  “As parks and recreation we have facilities, materials and staff with core competencies — child care, CPR, first aid — that no one else can provide.”

Kuethe, who helps lead Operation Recreation Response, a coalition created by the Foundation for Sustainable Park and Recreation, GP RED and Save the Children, recognizes the untapped potential that parks have in providing the essential services of disaster preparedness, response and recovery.

“We have a responsibility to improve and practice emergency plans to best protect children. And, we must communicate those plans to our families so they can actively engage in that plan, and encourage families to make emergency plans for themselves through education, training and programs,” she says. “That’s how we have to do it. It takes the cooperation and communication of the whole community to keep kids safe. Parks and recreation can and should be a leader for children’s safety in disasters, but we can’t go it alone.”

Supporting Children in Disasters

Park and recreation programs are critical for helping children cope with crises. They provide children with a sense of stability, comfort and, most importantly, the opportunity to play and just be a kid again. Helping children cope and learn in the aftermath of a disaster requires creativity, flexibility and adaptability. Here is guidance from Save the Children on how you can help children express their feelings and adjust to their new surroundings following disaster

Establish Safety and Control: Have a supervised, safe place within your facility or park site where children can receive support or sit quietly as needed. Increase children’s sense of control and mastery by letting them make choices that affect their day. For example, ask them for help in planning and choosing activities. Be available to talk one-on-one with children. Let them know you are there to listen.

Set Up Routine: Maintain program schedules and routines. Create opportunities for children to work and play together in groups or teams. Plan activities, rituals and celebrations for achievements, birthdays or holidays. This will help provide normalcy while creating a positive environment.

Normalize and Validate: Reflect on what children say and validate their feelings and experiences. Let them know that it’s normal to be fearful or scared of disasters and it’s okay to feel angry afterward. Sometimes children can be giddy, callous or aggressive as a way of avoiding difficult emotions. Help them to be compassionate with each other and themselves.

Move Toward Positive Action: Help children reframe anger or despair by focusing on positive things. Encourage children to develop positive methods of coping with stress and fears. Begin by helping them to identify what they have done in the past that allowed them to cope when they were scared or upset. Encourage children to contribute to the recovery and rebuilding their community, and consider group volunteer projects.

Learn From the Disaster: Teach children about natural disasters (e.g., what causes a hurricane/tornado/etc.; how experts track them) and basic emergency preparedness skills to help them gain mastery over the event. Incorporate disaster-related information into your programs, using information and lessons from a recent disaster in your instruction.

Encourage Creativity: Use creative arts to help children express their emotions (e.g., art, drama, music, photography, writing, etc.). This can be very helpful for children who are not ready to talk about their emotions, or who culturally might not feel comfortable talking.

Commit to the Calling — Our Responsibility

Parks and recreation are at the heart of each of our communities and on the front lines of children’s safety every day, but that’s not enough if they aren’t ready for the worst. Although gaps in state and federal emergency standards often overlook the unique needs of children, parks can fill that gap by improving plans, training staff and being a champion for children at the local level. 

Al-Oboudi of Manhattan Beach perhaps summed it up best: “We can’t let Katrina happen twice. We need to take action to keep our communities safe and secure our future — our children. This is not a story, this is a calling.”

Sarah Thompson, MA, is the Associate Director, Community Preparedness, for Save the Children.