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A Pitiful Portion of America’s Disaster Budget Goes to Children

After Hurricane Harvey struck, why did shelters run out of cribs and cram kids into unsafe housing? Because of dysfunction at every level of disaster relief.

For every $10 spent on federal disaster preparation, less than one cent is earmarked for the care of children. Perhaps that’s why, after Hurricane Harvey ripped through 200,000 homes, 190 schools, and 5,000 childcare facilities, driving thousands of adults and children into shelters, relief workers quickly ran out of cribs. Days after the storm had subsided, babies were still sleeping in cardboard boxes and children were being housed in dangerous shelters.

Experts were not surprised. American kids have long been overlooked when it comes to disaster management. “I have spent my career working in disaster relief,” Carolyn Kousky, a risk management expert at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the unique needs of children after a disaster, told Fatherly. “I never hear people talking about kids.”

Given that children make up 25 percent of the U.S. population, that’s a startling omission and a systemic problem. The main reason for the lack of child-centric relief programs seems to be a family-centric planning framework that provides funds that could be used for kids but don’t have to be. “There’s not a specific program for children,” Kousky says. So, when President Trump issued a disaster declaration for Harvey, that allowed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to start spending on a handful of assistance programs, none of which directly help children. The individual assistance program covers private home repairs and may also be used for childcare, but no family receives more than $33,000. Most receive a mere $5,000.

children during hurricane harvey

A man helps children across a flooded street as they evacuate their home after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

FEMA’s public assistance program is more substantial, and is intended for debris cleanup, rebuilding public infrastructure, and coordinating an emergency response. Again, these funds could be funneled toward programs that benefit children specifically, but they often are not. “State and local governments have enormous flexibility to propose disaster plans for kids in their action plans—they could use that money to rebuild schools and hospitals that are serving kids,” Kousky says. “But what they usually do with that money is pay for housing or infrastructure.”

Organizations managing disaster response want to get kids back into their homes. That’s a noble goal, but it doesn’t solve for what they’re forced to endure in the meantime. “On the ground [in Houston], we’re seeing shelters that are not adequately up to child protection standards,” Sarah Thompson, director of U.S. preparedness at Save The Children, told Fatherly. “Shelters need basic child safety and protection mechanisms, like private bathing quarters, and child-specific supplies like cribs, diapers, strollers.”

Risk management buffs had long known that children were a disaster-funding blind spot, but the issue did not get much attention until 2005 when Hurricane Katrina smashed into New Orleans. Katrina was a case study in what happens when the federal, state, and local government forget about children, and relief workers on the ground are forced to improvise. At the height of the disaster, flooded hospitals evacuated their neonatal intensive care units and transported them to safety with military and private helicopters. Although few kids died, the storm led to more than 5,000 cases of missing children and a plethora of mental health issues for the traumatized youth who survived. One study of 1,079 households displaced by Katrina found that, four years later, 36 percent of children showed signs of serious emotional disturbances. “The mental health needs of children were immense after Katrina,” wrote coauthor on the study David Abramson of New York University. “But far too many kids never got the help they desperately needed.”

Shocked into action, Congress created the National Commission on Children and Disasters to assess the gaps in federal planning that put children at risk, and recommend ways to fill those gaps. The commission report, released in 2010, was damning. “As expected, we found serious deficiencies,” the commission wrote. “Children were more often an afterthought than a priority.”

children during hurricane harvey

Dean Mize holds children as he and Jason Legnon use an airboat to rescue people from homes that are inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The NCCD issued 81 recommendations. But five years later, when Save The Children commissioned a study to check on the federal government’s progress, they found that only 17 of those recommendations had been fully met. Some 45 remained in progress and 20 had not even been addressed. In other words, federal agencies were aware of programmatic issues that could jeopardize children long before this year’s hurricane season got off to a horrifying start.

And it’s not as though the problems are all intractable. Some are quite simple.

“In Texas, we’re seeing gaps in childcare because FEMA does not have the authority to provide recovery assistance to private, for-profit organizations. That’s a huge issue,” Thompson says. “Childcare and education programs are the center of the community. Getting kids back to their routines helps parents get back to work and helps the economic recovery of the community.”

The federal government’s inaction is not the only avoidable problem. Save The Children also found that many states do not require childcare providers to prepare for disasters: 18 states and the District of Columbia do not mandate written plans for evacuating children, reuniting them with their families, running safety drills, and ensuring that children with disabilities receive care. Texas, where Hurricane Harvey made landfall, meets all of these standards. Florida does not.

Outside of the United States, countries take great pains to ensure that children are not lost in the mix before, during, and after a disaster. “At many Japanese schools, first-day-of-class celebrations include an evacuation drill,” Thompson says. Similarly, she says, The Philippines dedicate a large chunk of their sparse funds to the Children’s Emergency Relief and Protection Act, which addresses the specific needs of children after a disaster strikes. “If we want to be a leader in protecting children in emergencies, we need to purposefully prioritize children’s needs through federal and state preparedness funds,” Thompson says. “We still have a long way to go to ensure that when disaster strikes, children will be protected and families’ needs will be met.”

So why can’t the U.S. get its act together—and who’s to blame when a Hurricane makes landfall and we’re unprepared? “Decisions to not prioritize children’s needs and gaps in accountability exist at all levels,” Thompson says. “In some ways, it’s that sense of diffused responsibility that perpetuates the problem.”

A boy rides a bike through his neighborhood as water continues to rise following Hurricane Harvey on August 30, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi August 25, has dumped nearly 50 inches of rain in and around Houston. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A boy rides a bike through his neighborhood as water continues to rise following Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Kousky agrees that it’s hard to point to one (or even a few) bad actors. “Both state emergency managers and FEMA could do more to prioritize children in the aftermath,” she says. “Federal recovery funds could be used for children, yet none of it is earmarked for kids.” She adds that lack of a clear scientific consensus on how to care for children in a disaster may be contributing to the problem. “There’s a lack of understanding about what children need, so the government is not exactly sure what they should be funding,” Kousky says. “The medical community can’t say ‘We need this exact intervention for these kids’—and that contributes to the problem.”

One of the first steps toward fixing the problem is ensuring that children have a representative at the federal disaster planning table by making the FEMA Children’s Needs Advisor a permanent position (it’s currently an interim role, but legislation to change that is pending) and requiring Homeland Security to report on the status of children in emergencies (also pending). But states may be able to do even more than the federal government because federal preparedness grants are allocated based on state requests. States could lead the charge by addressing gaps and prioritizing supplies for infants and mass childcare or creating state family reunification plans.

Progress can be made on an even more local level as well.

“Children need their family and the safety and comfort of family more than anything else,” Thompson says. “Less than half of American families have an emergency plan.”