September is National Preparedness Month and the Great American ShakeOut earthquake drill is Oct. 16, a reminder that disasters often happen with little or no warning. That’s why it’s important for families to have a plan in place for before an earthquake, flood, hurricane, tornado, wildfire or other natural disaster occurs.
“The first place to start is at home,” says Jeffrey Upperman, M.D., director of the Trauma Program and Pediatric Disaster Resources and Training Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
And a good first question for families to ask is: How will everyone evacuate the home and where will everyone gather?
Upperman encourages families to routinely practice disaster and evacuation drills so springing into action is second nature. Nobody should be standing around waiting for instructions on what to do or where to go.
Before a disaster strikes, families should:
- Make emergency kits for the home, the office and the car. Essential items are water, food (canned goods, dry cereals and granola bars), medications, money, work gloves, a flashlight and extra batteries, a crank radio, shoes, a blanket and a small shovel. Bicycle helmets can be a preventative measure to limit head injuries. Don’t forget about your pet’s food and water needs. If there are infants and toddlers in the home, make sure to include diapers and formula in the kit.
- Keep copies of essential documents, insurance policies, passports and kids’ fingerprints in a protected area or with a trusted family member or friend.
- Have a list of four or five phone numbers of outside emergency contacts (family or friends) for each family member. Provide this list to your child’s school or primary caregiver. Oftentimes, landline and cellular phone capabilities are limited, so it’s important that every family member knows how to text. Texting services rarely are affected during a disaster
- Establish meeting points when the family isn’t together. Perhaps that’s a local elementary school, a bus stop or a parking lot.
- Make sure a plan is in place in your community and at your child’s school. Go to neighbors on your street and on your block. Every family should have a buddy family.
Once a family plan has been established, make sure you know the emergency plan at your place of employment.
“Parents should understand plans for their kids’ school and day care centers, and help them get it if they don’t have one,” Upperman says.
How Do You Explain Things to Kids?
The hours, days and weeks after a disaster can be challenging for a child to process simple questions like: What happened? Why did this happen? What if it happens again?
Children are physically and psychologically more vulnerable than adults. That’s why it’s important to communicate to children on their level, and not treat them like “little adults.”
“The first thing is to reassure their safety,” says Stephanie Marcy, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. “Stick with a routine, let them know that they are going to be OK and try to provide some familiar object from the house so that if you have to leave they can take it with them to provide a sense of familiarity.”
If a family’s home is not inhabitable following a disaster, it’s important that kids know “you’re there with them and you’re going to be ok because you’re together,” Marcy says. “Kids can survive a lot of things if they are with a familiar person they trust.”
And while media coverage can inform people of hazards and conditions following a disaster, the information can be scary for kids.
“The images that a grownup is viewing and has context to understand, a little child or even a school-age child may not. They may be seeing images of people in different states of distress and it could be very scary to them,” Marcy adds. “Be very careful what you’re talking about and what you’re showing your children, but stay informed so you can make good decisions as a parent. Just communicate with them and let them know what’s happening so that there are as few surprises as possible as you go along.”