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Natural Disaster

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by Mary Jessica Hammes
May 26, 2011

The United States is currently experiencing a record number of tornadoes, with 875 in the month of April alone.

I spent the night of April 27 listening to the tornado sirens wail outside, watching my 4-year-old son and husband sleep peacefully on the twin-sized mattress we had hauled, last-minute, into the hallway. I curled up into an uncomfortable ball and checked Facebook, reading all sorts of status updates from friends camped out in basements, closets, and bathtubs.

Thankfully, mother nature spared our Georgia city. I was especially grateful because my family had absolutely no plan in place to ride out such a deadly storm. Unlike myself, a friend planned for the storm well in advance. She kept an emergency pack at the ready, including wallets, phones, cameras, watches, shoes, a change of clothing, a few of her son’s most special toys, a space blanket, some food and bottled water, and a flashlight.

It never occurred to me do any of that. Even though we knew the storm was coming, we did nothing to prepare.

In the event climate change means more extreme weather patterns, I want to know how to keep my family safe. I also want to be prepared without alarming my child, who, like many children, can be overly sensitive or anxious.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now has a comprehensive Children & Disasters website geared toward surviving tornadoes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters.

There is everything you’d expect—how to care for your child in a temporary shelter, preparing children (including those with special needs) for disasters, what supplies to have on hand, making a family plan for emergencies—but what I find particularly helpful is a page devoted to “Promoting Adjustment and Helping Children Cope.”

The page is not limited to natural disasters, but has resources on how to help a child when a loved one dies, how to quell children’s anxiety about vaccinations and other shots, how to discuss wars and diseases, even how to talk about the economy.

Regardless of the topic, the overall emphasis is on communication. According to the AAP, when preparing for a possible disaster, speak honestly and openly in words your child will understand. If your child is scared, acknowledge those feelings and reassure him rather than trying to dismiss the fear or make safety promises you can’t keep. Stay calm, and your child will follow your lead.

If your family actually experiences a disaster, a link to a HealthyChildren page helps you navigate fears that may persist long after the event is over. Children can become anxious, believing the event will happen again, and that the family will become separated or even killed. Children’s personalities and behaviors can change immediately or weeks later. In any event, be prepared to help your child cope by keeping the family close together, remaining calm, talking openly and honestly, encouraging your child to talk (and listening to him); returning to normal routines when possible, and, if necessary, seeking professional help.

Parental checklist
Every family can start their preparations today:

  • Teach your child how and when to use emergency numbers, and include the phone number of an out-of-town family member that your child can call if they get separated.
  • Have a family disaster plan. Identify a location outside of your home where everyone can meet if they need to evacuate.
  • Show your children how to shut off utilities. Explain danger signals like smoke detectors, fire alarms, and community-wide signals (horns or sirens).
  • Make a disaster supplies kit, using this guide from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. While you assemble this, your child can put together a friendlier-feeling “Get Ready Kit”—a backpack filled with beloved toys, games, and other objects that will help him stay calm (and occupied!) should you need to spend some nights away from home.

The AAP website also has links to developing an evacuation or shelter-in-place plan; information on breastfeeding and other options for infant nutrition during a disaster; and how to find an open Red Cross shelter in your time of need. There’s also a link to “Let’s Get Ready!”, a child-friendly emergency preparedness plan from Sesame Workshop, which includes a video of Grover talking about “being prepared,” and may take the scariness out of the exercise and help simplify the idea for young children.

“Be prepared”—sounds familiar. The AAP website does a good job of bringing the classic Boy Scout motto up-to-date during a time when many people need it most.