A decade after Katrina, children are still too vulnerable in disasters: Editorial – NOLA.com

Tineisha was 15 when Hurricane Katrina struck and St. Bernard Parish went under water. She lost her beloved father, who drowned in their Violet home. She also lost her sense of well-being. “Katrina stays on my mind. It’s like she’s there when I wake up, go to sleep, all through the day,” she said in a video by Save the Children on her experience.

A mom now herself, she is fearful in a heavy rainstorm. She worries about putting herself at risk and leaving her children to cope without her, as she has had to do without her father.

“They say time heals all wounds, but I don’t think that’s true in certain cases,” she said.

The trauma of Katrina and the levee breaches — lost loved ones, displaced families, flood-ravaged homes, months or even years without stability — lingers for many people who went through the 2005 disaster. But the effect on children was especially devastating: 5,000 were reported missing; 300,000 had to enroll in new schools. According to the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, 37 percent of Louisiana children suffered depression, anxiety or behavior disorders post-Katrina.

Their distress was exacerbated by a lack of childcare, mental health and other essential services during evacuation and afterward. Some children were separated from their families and ended up alone in shelters where they weren’t properly protected.

And not nearly enough has been done to remedy those weaknesses in the decade since Katrina.

The National Commission on Children and Disasters issued 81 recommendations in 2010 to improve the care of children in natural disasters and other emergencies. But Save the Children found that only 17 of the commission’s recommendations have been fully implemented. Nothing at all has been done on 20 of them, and the others are somewhere in between.

The Save the Children analysis, which was released in July, found that shelters still aren’t routinely set up to give children a separate space with properly trained caregivers, mental health services are lacking and fewer than half of hospitals have a plan in place to deal with children affected by disasters.

Although Congress approved $20 million in 2014 for research and training to improve disaster transportation for children, there is no national strategy for how that should work.

The Save the Children report used a Katrina example to illustrate the complexity of evacuating ill children. Women’s Hospital of Baton Rouge cared for 121 babies — one weighing less than 2 pounds — who were evacuated from New Orleans and Jefferson Parish hospitals. Getting the babies to Baton Rouge, though, required working through a maze of bureaucracy and coordinating helicopters and ambulances to transport preemies from flooded hospitals in New Orleans.

Flight crews weren’t necessarily trained to deal with the tiny, fragile babies. And the triage system set up at the airport in New Orleans wasn’t appropriate for infants.

Thankfully, they all survived — but it was harrowing for doctors and families.

It is distressing that a decade later there are still so many weaknesses in the nation’s disaster strategy for children.

The Commission on Children and Disasters “created a national roadmap to better protect children from disaster and to help them bounce back.  Our leaders must finish the job,” Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children, said.

That is essential. The Obama administration and Congress must make this a priority.

Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, a physician, cosponsored a congressional briefing on the Save the Children report in mid-July.

U.S. Rep. Grace Meng of New York testified at the briefing. Afterward, she posted a message on Facebook: “After Katrina, many programs were created to keep children safe, but not many were implemented in time for Sandy. Unacceptable! … Congress must elevate children’s safety across federal agencies that deal with disaster response and preparedness.”

It is shameful that children who went through Sandy are suffering from the same lack of services that children in Katrina did.

Children are not only vulnerable in disasters, but their needs are different from adults. They are physically, mentally and emotionally different, and emergency plans that don’t take that into account will fail them.

How could these lessons be ignored for so long?

One major problem, Save the Children said in its report, is a lack of leadership. There should be point-people on children’s disaster issues at the White House and every federal agency, but there aren’t. Congress also has failed to provide sufficient funding for these initiatives, and there is a lack of coordination at the federal, state and local level.

What could be more important than protecting children during an emergency? These issues can’t be allowed to languish any longer.

Johnisha, another child of Katrina videotaped by Save the Children, said: “With the right support, kids can get through anything really. With the right support.”

But they can’t get through it alone.