Yesterday the US Senate’s Ad hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery held a hearing on “Focusing on Children in Disasters: Evacuation Planning and Mental Health Recovery.” With notable witnesses including FEMA Administrator, Craig Fugate and Mark Shriver of Save the Children, the hearing examined one of the most vulnerable populations in emergencies – children.

Needless to say from my experiences with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I can sadly say I witnessed firsthand the shortcomings in evacuations, logistics and planning with children and many other vulnerable populations.  As sobering as those experiences were, they were only equaled in the frustrations that I and many others have had in drawing focused attention to the needs of the most vulnerable of our population to disaster planning and preparedness.

That’s why I’ve been heartened by Craig Fugate’s leadership at FEMA.  From his confirmation hearing in the spring; his meetings with stakeholder groups and various interviews, he’s made it a point to recognize that our disaster planning and preparedness needs to bigger and broader and take into consideration some things that have often been overlooked in the past.  Notable in those shortcomings is how we deal with children and the disabled.

His candor in yesterday’s hearing about how vulnerable populations have been “an afterthought” in terms of emergency planning and resources is not a shock to those who been advocates of those who have special needs. Many of these people have firsthand experience in being overlooked and ignored.

The recently issued report by ANSI’s Homeland Security Standards Panel, “Emergency Preparedness for Persons with Disabilities and Special Needs,” as well as Save the Children’s, “Disaster Decade Report” have put the stark and sobering facts about these conditions squarely on the American table to face up to.

Fugate, who dealt with many of these issues firsthand while leading the State of Florida’s emergency management efforts has decided he’s seen enough and offered words that were music to my ears and I’m sure to many others:

“Let’s write plans that actually reflect the communities we live in….  They have children. They have people with disabilities. They have frail elderly.”

In other words, they are America.  No community is immune from disasters or having vulnerable people who live in it.  As such making them part of the planning, preparedness and partnership process should seem to be a no-brainer but it has been in the past.  Fugate’s words bode well for the future where action and results are the ultimate metrics.

We’ve got a lot of work to do in these and other areas and it appears Craig Fugate has opened some seats at his table to begin the process.  Thank you, Mr. Administrator.  We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More