When Natural Disaster Strikes: Who’s Watching the Children?

As I sat and watched the news and social media feeds in regards to Hurricane Harvey, my heart was breaking. Many lost their homes, their cherished items, and for some, their lives. They had too many questions on their minds. Where they will sleep? Will they be rescued? Will they have food and water? Are their loved ones safe?

Within the first few days of the storm, early care programs are probably the last thing on anyone’s mind, unless you were a search and rescue worker. You hope that each had a support system in place if they had children, someone that could watch their children for days while they serve the community. You hope that their support system was not flooded or within the areas hit the hardest.

But once recovery begins, the question does become who’s watching the children? Who’s watching the children while parents seek assistance? Who’s watching the children while you clean up what is left of your home? For some it may be that they have to go back to work but their early care program is gone. As much as children need to be with loved ones during this time, many parents don’t have that support. They need a place that children can go and get the support they need as well as being safe. So how do we make sure this happens? It is an important question that should be answered long before the disaster hits. Early Care leaders should be sitting at the table when plans are set to address natural disasters. Unfortunately, these lessons are learned the hard way.


Lessons from Katrina

Pictures taken by Jim Stanley, Katrina Volunteer

There are countless lessons learned from Katrina, probably too many to name. But one lesson that most early care professionals focused on was: who is going to watch the children while the adults are putting their lives back together one piece at a time?

During the weeks following Katrina, well-meaning people worked to set up early care environments in tents for families. This picture is of an actual child care tent that was set up in Mississippi following Katrina. These “pop-up” programs were meant to give parents some relief and give children back some form of routine, a place for them to be a kid and let go of their worries for a few hours. However, unfortunately many of them were not set up according to code and were thus dismantled, leaving families once again without support.

Lessons from Gaston

Closer to home, Richmond suffered from Gaston in 2004. Gaston came on very quickly and left people stranded across the city. Many parents were caught at work and couldn’t get to their children. Many early care programs were without electricity and water, without staff, and had to care for children for long hours until water receded. Days later, the area continued to go without electricity and drinking water was limited. Despite this, parents had to return to work. Many were faced with who would be watching their children.

Preparing for Disaster, Before it Strikes

I am sure we could go on and on with how natural disasters have disrupted our early care environments and have left parents seeking out someone to watch their children. Not to mention, finding an early child care program that has an emergency plan in place before disaster strikes. Do they have supplies to last them a few days if needed? If you have an infant, is there enough formula to get your child through 24-hours if you can’t get to them? If they have to evacuate, how will the program get the children to safety? Is your staff prepared to deal with the trauma that the children are dealing with in this disaster?

If you are an early care program, getting prepared for an emergency before it happens is overwhelming. There are so many different kinds of emergencies. You may have to plan for an emergency that you have to shelter in place or you might have to leave your facility all together.


Lucky for you there are resources out there that can help you plan, and you don’t have to start from scratch.

  • ChildSavers Trauma-Informed Training – Help prepare your staff for guiding our communities children through life’s critical moments. We also offer free technical assistance to all early care programs after the training.
  • Child Care Aware of Central Virginia here at ChildSavers can provide you with free technical assistance to assist you in making an Emergency Preparedness Plan.
  • Virginia Shared Service Network – Child Care Aware of Central VA can assist you in registration into the shared network. Once a member you will have access to Emergency Preparedness resources and so much more.
  • Child Care Aware of America has resources and tools for emergency preparedness.

Janet Burke is the Director of Child Development Services at ChildSavers, a nonprofit organization that believes that all children can be safe, happy, healthy and ready to learn.  She manages six core programs that support this belief; Child Care Aware of Central Virginia, Child Development Training, Child Development Associate Certificate Program, Virginia Quality Central Region, Voluntary Registration for the Central Region and the Child and Adult Care Food Program.  Janet joined ChildSavers in 1992 where she has worked as a trainer, supervisor, coordinator, program manager and director. 

She has been a Master Rater and Master Trainer for Virginia’s Quality and Rating Improvement System since 2007 where she was trained in the first cohort of trainers.  Along with 36 years of experience of working in early care and with early care professionals, she has a Certificate in Early Childhood and a Certificate in Supervisory and Leadership and has taken many other child development and business classes over the years. This includes being trained by the authors for CLASS, Environmental Rating Scale, Here, Now and Down the Road, MyTeachingPartner and DECA.  She holds current certifications as a CLASS Observer, CLASS Trainer, and Environmental Rating Scale. Janet is an alumnus of the Emerging Nonprofit Leaders in Richmond.  

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