Keeping Students & Teachers Safe During Natural Disasters

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In 2017, the United States faced 49 natural disasters. The combination of hailstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes and thunderstorms cost billions in damages. However, disasters that affect schools strike especially close to the heart because they affect young children.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by Eastern Kentucky University’s Online Safety, Security & Emergency Management Program. 

How proactive disaster prep can help kids stay as safe as possible.

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Natural Disasters in the U.S. in 2017

The year 2017 has been declared the costliest year for natural disasters in the U.S. The new dubious precedent has reached more than $306 billion.

There are several sources for this record. Flooding in Northern California caused $1.5 billion in damage and flooding across Missouri and Arkansas carried a cost of $1.7 billion and 20 fatalities. Hurricane Harvey dumped 27 trillion gallons of water on Texas, which translates to 60.58 inches. The hurricane caused 88 fatalities, insured losses of $30 billion, and overall losses of $85 billion, making it the world’s costliest natural disaster in 2017 by overall losses. Hurricane Irma, meanwhile, created overall losses of $67 billion, but caused $32 billion in insured losses as well as 128 fatalities. Additionally, wildfires across the western U.S., such as California’s Thomas Fire generated insured losses of $8 billion and overall losses of $10.5 billion as well as 25 fatalities.

Sometimes, the natural disasters have created “near miss” experiences for American students. In 1933, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake rocked Long Beach, California and damaged nearly 200 school buildings at a time when school wasn’t in session. A 6.7 magnitude earthquake hit Northridge, California in 1994; while it collapsed suspended ceilings and light fixtures, no school buildings collapsed. Ten years later, an EF3 tornado hit Little Rock, Arkansas and leveled a school under construction.

Unfortunately, there have been natural disasters that have taken a toll on both schools and students. In 2007, an EF4 tornado destroyed a local high school in Enterprise, Alabama, and an unreinforced concrete masonry wall killed eight students and injured over 50 others. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, it damaged or destroyed hundreds of school buildings, which caused over 100,000 students to miss some or all of the 2005-06 academic year.

Safety Procedures & Precautions

School staff and parents should be equally involved in preparing for emergencies. School staff oversee drills and safety procedures, while parents should make sure their children understand the family emergency plan.

How Schools Prepare

Schools prepare for emergencies by holding simulation drills, recording results, and improving processes. Schools can also deploy a school disaster management committee to draw up contingency plans based on assessed risks, vulnerabilities and hazards. This contingency plan considers structural and non-structural safety, local infrastructure and environment mitigation. Additionally, school staff can develop disaster-response procedures, skills and organizational structure.

What Parents Should Know

There are several key elements for parents to be aware of regarding a school’s disaster preparedness. They should know where the evacuations take place in anticipation of or following a disaster. They should also be cognizant of where relocations may occur in times where returning to the school building isn’t an option. Additionally, they should know when a lockdown or a lockout takes place in the event of an internal or external danger. They also need to be aware of shelters-in-place used during severe weather conditions like fire, floods, or hurricanes. Finally, parents should know that communication during disasters is a responsibility of school staff, and that schools will use their emergency communication systems to notify parents via voice, email or text message.

How Parents Should Prepare

Parents should ensure their children understand their family emergency plan. This includes communication methods and where to reunite after a disaster. For students that take medication, parents should make sure the school has backup or extra medication in case of emergencies. Parents should also keep emergency contact information updated and inform the school of any changes. Additionally, parents should keep an emergency card in their wallets and in their students’ backpacks.

Preparing for an emergency requires learning about the school’s emergency response. Parents should understand rules for parental access, meetup locations and emergency communications between the school and parents.

Support & Recovery

Recovering from disaster can be a long, difficult process. For children, understanding what’s happening around them and having their questions answered is crucial to their emotional well-being. Parents should be aware of children’s potential reactions and how to offer their support.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), natural disasters can cause regressive behaviors to manifest in preschoolers. They can also cause poor attention, aggression, and social withdrawal among elementary school kids. Middle and high school students may experience an increase in conflicts or exhibit delinquent behavior after a natural disaster.

The risk factors that can affect the severity of a child’s reaction include the loss of a loved one, injury, home dislocation, and event exposure. Parents can offer support by staying calm while acknowledging the loss of destruction, showing empathy, encouraging positive coping skills, and seeking the help of a school counselor, psychologist, or social worker.

Author Ken Poirot has said, “Be proactive, not reactive, for an apparently insignificant issue ignored today can spawn tomorrow’s catastrophe.” Natural disasters top the list of catastrophes faced by Americans today. For schools, students and parents, preparation is key to minimizing the impact of a natural disaster. When a moment’s notice is all that’s given, drills, safety precautions, and disaster-response procedures can make a big difference in reducing damage and saving lives.