Children and Disasters

Issue #27: May 9, 2016

This Special Edition of the Children and Disaster Bulletin: News, Tools, and Science will focus on NCDP’s recently released research report and accompanying webinar, titled “Children in Disasters: Do Americans Feel Prepared?” This national survey explored the nation’s opinions and attitudes toward disaster preparedness with a focus on the issues surrounding children in disasters. The study was a component of the Resilient Children/Resilient Communities (RCRC) Initiative. This bulletin, and accompanying report, will walk you through the key findings that pay particular attention to household preparedness, the public’s understanding of child-serving institution’s emergency and evacuation plans, response expectations, and perceived vulnerabilities.

Report: Children in Disasters: Do Americans Feel Prepared?

Download the report to follow along and view detailed charts and graphs. Full-size graphics in this newsletter can be found in the full report. Quotes are taken directly from the live webinar, which may be viewed by clicking the image below or via this link. This national survey was modeled after previous NCDP surveys known as the American Preparedness Project, which has trended preparedness questions since 2003.

Watch the full webinar, discussing the findings of the report:

American Household Preparedness

Half of the population reports having a family emergency preparedness plan that all family members know about and ~57% believe their household is ready for a disaster. Over the past 12 years, the number of households with a family emergency preparedness plans has steadily risen, increasing by over 15% since 2003. As much as this is a good sign, it should be noted that the converse is also true, that 50% of the population does not or is unsure of having a family emergency preparedness plan.

“When it comes to emergency preparedness plans, it is not only important that families have them. It is also important that emergency preparedness plans are adequate.” – Elisa Petkova

Within the context of the survey, an adequate emergency plan includes ALL of the following: two days’ worth of food and water, a flashlight, a portable radio and spare batteries, emergency phone numbers, and a meeting place for family members in the case of evacuation. The number of households with adequate emergency preparedness plans in place has increased since 2003. However, 65% of American households do not have an adequate emergency preparedness plan or no plan at all.

“What the numbers really tell us is that preparedness among households remains shockingly low, particularly as we unpack that question of how prepared those households are to actually look at what kinds of actions are being taken. 35% of American households who have an adequate emergency plan] is just not far enough. We’re not moving the needle on this, and something just isn’t clicking the way that we had hoped that it would through the years of preparedness efforts.”       – Jeff Schlegelmilch

Familiarity with Child-Serving Institution Emergency and Evacuation Plans

35% of households reported having children in a school or daycare setting. Of those households, 64% were familiar or very familiar with the emergency or evacuation plan at the daycare or school, while nearly 35% were not very familiar or not familiar at all. This percentage has fluctuated over time but has remained low since 2003, with the peak being 45% in 2007. In addition, 41% of the population admitted to not knowing where their child or children would be evacuated to if their school had to evacuate.

“If you have a school of a thousand students, and 60% [of families] are aware of the emergency plan, that means four hundred families are not aware. That will overwhelm any emergency system for a school that size.” – Jeff Schlegelmilch

Response Expectations

In the event of a major disaster in their community, 42% of the population reported expecting schools and daycares to resume their normal schedules within one week, and 72% expected them to resume within one month. 54% of the population also believes that schools and other child-serving organizations in their community will be able to reunite children with their parents within several hours. These findings suggest that parents have a fairly high expectation of schools to resume normal operations, which in the event of a major disaster, may not match the realities of a post-disaster setting.

Perceived Vulnerabilities

Children have been considered “tiny humans” in the wake of a disaster, and the policies and resources that have been created do not fully aid children’s developmental needs. For example, the CDC states that children’s bodies are different from adult bodies, that they are unable to help themselves and rely on adults, and that a child takes the stress of a disaster harder than adults [2015].

Over half of the population (51%) is not too confident or not confident at all in the government’s ability to meet the unique needs of children in disasters. However, Americans are more trusting in their communities, with 62% of the population stating they were confident or very confident in their communities’ ability to meet the unique needs of children in disasters.

“Individuals have a higher level of trust in communities rather than government… Individuals are going to look to their communities for answers, and look to their communities for guidance…” – Jeff Schlegelmilch

57% of the population is confident that their community’s schools and child-serving institutions (i.e. daycares, schools) are a part of their community’s disaster plan. Although this is the majority of the population, 37% remain not too confident or not confident at all in the community involving child-serving institutions into their disaster plan. Considering that there are 64 million children separated from their parents every day, this adds up to a significant number. Finally, 35% of the population does not believe that schools in their community were built to hold up in the case of a major disaster.

Overall, this study shows that although resources and money have been invested in preparedness activities, household level preparedness has remained low. Additionally, while the population has a higher confidence in their community than the government’s ability to meet the unique needs of children in disasters (62% versus 47%), there is still significant room for improvement. Yet despite these low levels of confidence in disaster response, there is an extremely high expectation in rapid response efforts from both the communities and government.

There is much work to be done on all levels (individual, community, and government) to ensure that children’s needs are met and are included in the child-serving institutions’ and community’s disaster and evacuation plans. It is highly recommended that child-serving institutions, families, and emergency managers work together to address these issues in order to understand the views of all stakeholders.

Many communities, systems, and child-serving institutions are not sufficiently prepared to meet the needs of children when a crisis strikes. A community’s ability to rebound from a crisis can be measured by its effectiveness in caring for its children, who are among the most vulnerable populations in an emergency. Strengthening the community institutions that serve children will help enable families and communities to reduce the lasting impact of disasters.

“The reality is disaster can strike anywhere, any time, and children are the most vulnerable when they do…disasters can be scary, but learning about them doesn’t have to be.” – Erin Bradshaw

Background: The Resilient Children, Resilient Communities Initiative

The three-year RCRC Initiative will develop a scalable and replicable model of child-focused community resilience to be led by child-serving institutions. This is being accomplished by developing two pilot programs – one in Washington County, Arkansas, and one in Putnam County, New York. In partnership with leaders in these communities, this initiative will analyze, recommend, and implement procedures, trainings, and guidance to help communities protect children after disasters. Initiative impact will be measured using the Community Preparedness Index (CPI), an evidence-based measure of community preparedness previously developed by Save the Children in collaboration with the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. For more information, please visit

NCDP designed and deployed this national survey modeled on prior work through the American Preparedness Project, which collected data from 2002 – 2011. This particular report deployment focused mostly on attitudes on preparedness for children.

This study was led by the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute on behalf of the Resilient Children/Resilient Communities (RCRC) Initiative, in partnership with Save the Children with funding from GSK.

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