Disaster Relief Still Lags Behind for Kids

Within hours of hurricane Ike's landfall in Texas, San Antonio officials had compiled precise statistics about their evacuee situation. They knew the city would need to care for 5,303 people (561 of whom had special medical needs) and 642 pets, including a turtle named Nibbles. But there was one key group for which they had no figures: children. "No one knew" how many, says Kate Dischino, a staff member with nonprofit Save the Children, who's been working in the shelters.

The oversight is by no means unique to San Antonio; disaster-relief experts say kids are rarely counted in evacuations. It's symptomatic, they say, of a larger problem: three years since Hurricane Katrina there are still no national guidelines for how to protect children in disaster areas. "There are myriad issues with children, from preparedness and recovery to repatriation to communities" that remain unaddressed, says Gregg Lord, a senior policy analyst with the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. Shelters have reported shortages of essentials such as baby wipes and diapers. Lacking a suitable place to bathe infants post-Ike, some evacuees have used sinks set up next to Porta Potties. Save the Children's Jeanne-Aimee De Marrais was working at a flood-victim shelter in Iowa this summer and witnessed a 3-year-old wandering outside by a busy road. How'd it happen? There were no cribs to keep mobile toddlers safe. "Everyone assumes these things are taken care of, but they're not," says De Marrais. Such oversights can heap more trauma on kids already shaken by disaster. In a study of 665 families displaced by Katrina, nearly half reported at least one child with emotional or behavioral difficulties.

In December 2007, Congress created the National Commission on Children and Disasters to identify gaps in planning and recommend policy solutions. But because of squabbles over funding, the commission has yet to meet, blowing an opportunity to prepare for this summer's heavy hurricane season. Commission chair Mark Shriver says he's frustrated, especially given the smooth sailing for the 2006 legislation providing resources for pets in disaster situations. "If we can do this for dogs and cats," Shriver says, "we can do it for kids." Maybe next hurricane season.