WASHINGTON — Most of the country is poorly prepared to help children if disaster strikes, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate told a Senate committee Tuesday.
"We've historically looked at special populations as an afterthought," Fugate said. "Children are not small adults."
Mark Shriver, the chairman of the National Commission on Children and Disasters and managing director of advocacy group Save the Children, was more pointed:
"Children are 25 percent of the population," he said, "but we've spent more time, energy and money on pets than we have on kids. That's absolutely outrageous."
And Irwin Redlener, the president of the Children's Health Fund, said that FEMA was too often "flailing around" on certain children's disaster issues.
Fugate told the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Disaster Recovery that plans are in the works to address the problems. A FEMA working group will address the unique needs of children and create plans for how to reunite children with their families, make sure child care centers are rebuilt quickly, and evacuate children and house them.
Experts said Tuesday the help is needed urgently. Save the Children detailed its report card showing how prepared states were to protect children in a disaster and presented it at the hearing.
California, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alaska and Texas are considered well prepared, with most having an evacuation plan for child care centers, reunification plans, plans for children with special needs and a K-12 plan for multiple kinds of disasters.
The worst prepared states, which had few or none of those plans, include Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana and Missouri, as well as the District of Columbia.
Cynthia Bascetta, the director of health care for the Government Accountability Office, discussed with the subcommittee a July GAO report on the mental health needs of children after a disaster.
Many young victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 aren't getting the mental health help they need due to lack of funding and psychiatrists, the report said.
Making matters worse, more than two-thirds of children who were displaced by Katrina have emotional or behavioral issues, Redlener said. His group conducted a study of how children cope with disasters.
Redlener blasted FEMA for not developing a national disaster recovery strategy three years after it was told to do so by Congress, and urged the agency to keep better track of disaster victims.
"If not we're still going to be flailing around," he said. "Those children we ignore at their peril and at our peril."
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., was particularly bothered by how slowly child care centers rebuild after disasters. In St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana, the number of child care centers dropped from 26 before Katrina to only two by 2007, she said.
"There's got to be safe places for children for the parents to come back," she said, calling the centers essential to economic recovery.
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