Nine years after Katrina, family reunification planning a priority
Sharon Hawa is the Program Manager of Emergency Communications at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Sharon works closely with the emergency management and disaster communities at the local, state and federal levels to promote the importance of planning for children in disasters.
This year marks the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and emergency managers have learned a tremendous amount about how to better respond to disasters in its wake. The reunification of families separated during these disasters is still and will always be an important facet of emergency planning. However, the responsibility of reunification planning does not solely rest on the shoulders of emergency managers. Anyone looking after children should have a plan in place.
When children are separated from those who best understand their individual needs, they have greater difficulty coping, adding more anxiety and stress to their situation. Children separated during a disaster may be more vulnerable to maltreatment, abuse, kidnapping and exploitation.
Families and caretakers can begin preparing for disasters big or small — such as mudslides, floods, earthquakes, tornados and hurricanes — by making a plan.
How to prepare for separation during a disaster
- Know your child’s school and day care emergency evacuation and reunification plans. Some schools and day cares have emergency plans for a variety of scenarios, but recent studies indicate many do not. If your child’s school or day care does not have a reunification plan, encourage them to reach out to their school district or local emergency management agency to discuss developing one.
- Develop and regularly practice emergency plans at home with children and pets in case your family is separated. Designate an out-of-state relative or close friend to become “communications central” for the family. Because local phone lines may be down or inundated in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, someone out-of-state will be best positioned to receive calls. Displaced family members with access to a phone could call the out-of-state contact – typically without issue – to share and receive messages from other family members.
- Designate a location where your family could gather in the event of separation. This could be a playground, park or a local landmark that’s easily for children to get to if they need to on their own.
- Create a Child ID Kit for each child. This should include a recent color photograph of the child’s face, descriptive information, fingerprints, medical and dental records or bite impressions, and a DNA sample. This sample could be taken from any number of your child’s grooming items such as a hairbrush or toothbrush.
- Make copies of any legal paperwork if you are your child’s court designated primary caregiver in a custodial separation or divorce. Share them with any relatives or close friends in other states, or carry the paperwork with you in an emergency kit.
Sometimes, no matter how much you have planned, the worst happens: you become separated from your children. This is why we run the Unaccompanied Minors Registry. Through this online registry individuals can report a child who is accounted for, but separated from their caregivers. Anyone can report a separated child to the Unaccompanied Minors Registry, including emergency managers on the ground during a disaster. Reporting persons input basic information about the unaccompanied child to the registry and can even upload a photo of him/her. We then cross-reference any reports through this registry against phone calls from searching parents.
Since we’re at the height of hurricane season, take a few moments now to prepare your family in case of disaster.
For more emergency planning tips, visit www.Ready.gov.