FEMA’s forgotten children

By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Hurricane season is here. With predictions of more major storms headed for the battered Gulf Coast, emergency planners tell us they’re prepared – that Katrina and Rita have taught them hard-learned lessons. Right at the top of the list of last year’s mistakes: no one considered the needs of children. There’s a move in Congress to correct that unconscionable omission in future disasters and it should be quickly adopted.

It’s outrageous that the United States is less responsive to its children in the wake of calamity than primitive provinces in the mountains of Pakistan. But when Cokie visited those remote regions last November, she learned that the children there received better care after the disastrous October earthquake than the children of Louisiana and Mississippi did after the hurricanes six weeks earlier. The reason – international protocols dictate that children’s concerns will be systematically addressed as part of relief operations.

Shortly before the pilgrimage to Pakistan, Cokie returned to her hometown of New Orleans to find a shell-shocked city 10 weeks after Katrina. In what was a drowned-out and blown-apart ghost town, the silence was more startling than the miles of ruined homes, piles of debris and oddly tossed cars and boats. Sweet strains of live music, exuberant shouts of rowdy tourists, screaming sirens responding to pervasive crime – eerily all were missing.

Finally, along one half-cleared boulevard, came the sounds of kids playing. One school had opened, and a few children were back. But the vast majority was not. Scattered around the state and the country, no one had paid any attention to the children as they were rescued from high waters or herded into shelters where they were exposed to things unfit for youthful eyes and ears.

In the worst cases, children were separated from their families, sometimes taking months to be re-united. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that some 5,000 youngsters were reported missing or displaced. Frantic parents didn’t know where to turn to look for their kids. No registry automatically went into action designed to reunify families.

But there are agencies that do that all over the rest of the world. Cokie works with Save the Children, which arrives immediately after disasters occur in places like Pakistan and swings into action identifying children and locating their families. Working with local governments, other non-governmental organizations and sometimes the military, Save the Children instantly sets up safe play areas for kids and gets them into makeshift schools as quickly as possible. And experts in dealing with terrorized children teach local people how to help frightened youngsters.

None of that happened in our country last summer. Parents stood in 100-degree heat waiting for relief supplies with wailing toddlers at their feet. The children had no place else to go. When the families moved into tents or trailers, no one organized anything for the kids. And overcrowded schools in towns suddenly overwhelmed with evacuees had trouble just coping with the numbers of dislocated youngsters.

Over the months, Save the Children and groups like the Girls and Boys Clubs have set up programs in some of the hardest-hit areas. In April, Cokie visited an elementary school near one of the biggest FEMA trailer camps, euphemistically called Renaissance Village. Specially trained teachers worked with third-graders asking them to draw pictures of what happened when the hurricane hit.

“I saw dead bodies in the water when I was walking,” whispered one 8-year-old, “I was scared of what I saw.” “I was in the Superdome when the roof came off,” volunteered a classmate. These kids are the lucky ones; they are getting some help.

So are the kids in Bay St. Louis, Miss. Their daycare facility – a tent camp no longer needed by families who have found more substantial housing – might be a bit unusual, but it serves the purpose. With their children cared for, parents can get back to work. With school out, summer camps are now essential for working families. But no agency in this country provides those services for kids after disaster strikes.

A bipartisan resolution now before the Congress aims to change that. It directs FEMA to consult with non-governmental organizations experienced in dealing with the needs of children as part of the emergency agency’s disaster response. It’s ridiculous that caring for our kids should take an act of Congress. But the country can’t go through another hurricane season where our children are forgotten.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2006, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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