Natural disasters can strike anywhere at any time, often with little warning. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and severe thunderstorms with lightening can be frightening events. As caregivers for children, planning and practice can improve safety and decrease fear and panic for everyone involved should an emergency take place.
How likely is it that your childcare program will be involved in a natural disaster? If you live near a geological fault line, there is a good possibility that eventually you will experience an earthquake. Along the southern and eastern coasts of the U.S. and for miles inland, hurricanes can develop in late summer through fall. Severe thunderstorms with lightening are likely anywhere, most often in spring and summer. And no other country in the world has as many tornadoes as the U.S.
Every childcare program, both family and center-based, should have written policy and procedures for emergency situations, including natural disasters. All staff and volunteers should be familiar with and practice the emergency plan. For example, if the caregiver is injured, a custodian or parent may become responsible for the children's safety.
When developing or reviewing disaster preparation policy and procedures, consider these general guidelines:
- The caregiver is responsible for the care of all children. This includes taking attendance and accounting for all children's safety. Practice roll call with children calling out "here" very loudly. You also may partner children in a "buddy system" to help them stay with the group.
- Have every child's name and emergency contact information in a "to go" file or a printed sheet. This should be in a place where caregivers can quickly and easily locate it. In a disaster situation, this may become the only document with parent/guardian information.
- If your community has a warning system for disasters, learn to interpret its signals and know when your community will test their warning system. Encourage children to learn the sound and know what to do, even for test drills.
- Make sure you have flashlights that are handy and operational.
Know the "safe place" in every room. This may be under a sturdy table or desk and away from exterior walls, shelves, mirrors, windows, or bookcases. Do not go outdoors until it is safe to do so. When the shaking stops, if you believe your building is damaged and unsafe, carefully go outdoors and stay together until help arrives.
Teach the children to drop, cover, and hold on! At the first tremor, encourage children to hurry to the nearest safe place, drop to the ground, cover their heads and faces, and hold on until the quake is over. In preparation, show the children the safe areas. Set timers and have them run to the various areas. Shout "Earthquake!" and call out for them to drop. Shout "Cover" and show them how to use their arms to cover their face and head, moving their head onto their knees. Tell them to "Hold on" and not get up and move about until you say, "Quake over." In the case of a real earthquake, wait several minutes after the tremors end before moving in case of immediate aftershocks.
Before a hurricane arrives and evacuation takes place, high winds and rains usually appear. Hurricanes and tropical storms can create major problems well inland. Flash flooding is common in slow moving tropical systems, and small tornadoes can develop in spiral bands of a hurricane with little warning. These can extend hundreds of miles from the eye (center) of the storm. Have an evacuation route planned and listen to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio to keep track of conditions. Have blankets available in case you must evacuate in the rain. Do not evacuate unless you are advised to do so. Never drive onto flooded roads. Flooded roads can be deceivingly deep or have strong undercurrents.
Teach children that having disaster buddies can come in handy in situations. Pair them off and tell them a story such as Noah's Ark when the waters rose higher and higher. Practice pairing up and marching quickly and orderly to the "ark" (van, bus, cars) in case evacuation becomes necessary.
Thunderstorms and lightning
Lightning often accompanies thunderstorms. Lightning causes approximately 100 deaths and 300 injuries each year in the U.S. If a storm approaches, move children inside from playground facilities, even before it begins to rain. Lightning can begin suddenly. Whether on an outdoor field trip or on the playground, be aware and prepared if there is a potential for storms that day. If you can hear thunder, you are at risk of a lightning strike.
Talk with children about lightning. Let them shuffle around a carpeted area until the hairs on their head or arms stand up. Have them touch one another to feel the tingle. Explain that if caught outside in a storm, this feeling means danger. When they touch one another and feel the spark, have them squat on the floor, head on knees, hands grasping ankles or legs.
Tornadoes can come at the end of a thunderstorm and can be spawned by a hurricane miles away. The best childcare program preparation for tornadoes is a reliable way to hear tornado warnings, and to have a plan for your building. The best way to hear a tornado warning is with a NOAA weather radio with an alarm. The best place to survive a tornado is a small room on the lowest floor, away from windows, and near the center of the building. While advanced Doppler radar means that warnings are almost always available before large tornadoes, smaller tornadoes can touch down with little or no warning. If large hail begins to fall during a thunderstorm, it is best to assume that a tornado is nearby.
Remember that very young children learn through visual demonstration, following the examples of others, acting things out, and repetition. Older children can add reading and listening to their learning processes. Teach children the location of the safe areas in the facility for situations that may occur in your geographic area. Assure children that their caregiver will be with them in the safe area. To calm fears, caregivers can lead the children in songs, both during practice and in case of a true emergency. Soothing comments, being responsive to questions, and perhaps rubbing children's backs can also help. Invite children to express their feelings and fears by discussing, drawing, or other developmentally appropriate approaches.
Guests to the childcare program also can be helpful, but be sure the individual knows how to talk with children. You want the children to be informed and aware of how they can stay safe. Frightening descriptions, videos, or stories are inappropriate and should not be used with children. You might consider inviting community professionals such as a meteorologist (a familiar "weather person") to discuss natural events and why they occur. Because emergency personnel such as rescue workers in full gear can be frightening, it can be helpful for children to meet these people and watch them put on their gear. This helps children understand that there is a "real person" under the protective clothing and equipment. Law enforcement officers, fire fighters, or paramedics can talk about their role in helping people stay safe.
For safety, all children and adults should plan and practice what to do for potential natural disasters. In addition to safety, natural events such as thunderstorms and earth tremors can be frightening for children and adults, even if the situation does not seem immediately dangerous. Adequate preparation and practice can help reduce fears and concerns for children, caregivers, and parents.
By Kathryn Lay
Childcare Health & Safety Author
American Red Cross, 431 18th St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20006; 202-639-3520; www.redcross.org
Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), 500 C St. SW, Washington, DC 20472; 202-646-4600; www.fema.gov
National Weather Service, NOAA, 1325 East-West Hwy., Silver Spring, MD 20910; www.nws.noaa.gov