BUILDing Strong Foundations

Natural Disasters Underscore Inequities

9/18/2017 12:00:00 AM
Posted by: Build Initiative

By Mariana Florit, Director of Communications at BUILD Initiative 

I was at my parent’s home in Miami when the news broke that the city would be annihilated by Hurricane Irma. The discussion that ensued was not about whether to evacuate, as much as when. As I frantically booked a one-way flight back with my 18-month old daughter to my home, in Northern Virginia, my parents planned to drive out the next day with the dog and cats.

But sometimes the best laid plans don’t turn out as expected. My flight never took off - even though we were four days ahead of the storm. My father fell off a ladder while putting up shutters and injured himself so severely that he could not drive, leaving me to steer us most of the journey away from Hurricane Irma’s impending doom.

We started our evacuation in a veritable clown car at the crack of dawn: Mom, Dad, a grumpy toddler strapped into a carseat, a dog who uses a wheelchair to get around, and three cats. We were prepared to make the 17-hour trip to NoVa as quickly as possible - we’d done it countless times before. The evacuation route for Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas is, unsurprisingly, straight up I-95. After hours of gridlock, and overnight stops in Savannah, GA and Florence, SC, we finally made it home - THREE days later. Thankfully, in the end, the storm was weaker than what we had prepared for and my parents’ home is relatively undamaged. The drive was really tough - especially for Dad and toddler - but we certainly survived. At no point did I feel that we should have just stayed in Miami.

We are fortunate enough to be able to fork over the exorbitant fees for last-minute airfare. We have the opportunity to load up the car and take off from work before local businesses close and mandatory curfews are enacted, all in hopes of getting out ahead of the inconvenience of the hurricane, rather than its danger. We can afford to pay for pet-friendly lodging. Our ability to leave the state, without concern for our jobs, our financial stability, or whether there would be a home to return to, are all evidence of the privileged lives we lead.

Countless others are not so lucky. The inequities that affect the daily life of poor people are compounded before, during, and after natural disasters. While one wealthy individual risks the storm and goes golfing, another has to gamble over which windows to board up with the limited wood that he can acquire. Families are forced to make decisions that impact their ability to physically put a roof over their children’s heads, or attempt to make it to their jobs to pay for medications for their loved ones. Beyond the immediate effects with regard to health and housing, a return to normalcy for children and families is limited by damage to school infrastructure. This interferes with academics, but can also impact the most vulnerable children who depend on free or reduced lunch or receive take-home meals through backpack programs.

As a recent blog from Child Trends points out, children who experience natural disasters can live with long-term effects, including psychological, behavioral, and physical problems. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Irma, and the wildfires on the west coast, states must be poised to coordinate early childhood systems efforts to support children and their families at both a basic-needs and mental-health level. While natural disasters can overwhelm the infrastructure needed for response, states, in partnership with their school districts, can also help families in re-establishing routines to help the entire family feel less stressed. Coordinating efforts with school districts to waive uniform fees, establishing flexible policies on proof of immunization, and providing school transportation in affected areas are three tactics known to ease the strain of enrolling children in school after natural disasters.

Like any of the social issues that face our youngest and most vulnerable children, we cannot afford to wait for FEMA, Red Cross, or any one relief agency to step in to handle recovery efforts. Re-building a community is a process of collective effort, inclusive of infrastructure, schools, mental and physical health, social services and city, state, and federal leadership. States need to work with and support the leadership efforts of community leaders - who are on the ground and best understand community needs - to assist with rebuilding and social service offerings at the local level. Community leaders must work to bring back the supports and systems that were once in place, and build new systems for children and families, particularly where they may have been missing in the first place.  


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