Save the Children report: Georgia not ready for emergencies

It has been eight months since an icy storm colloquially dubbed “Snowpocalypse” shut down metro Atlanta, leaving thousands of people stranded on highways and scores of children stuck in schools.

Yet, according to a report released this week by the nongovernmental child-advocacy organization Save the Children, the state of Georgia still does not have a firm plan in place to coordinate how to get kids safely home in the event of a major emergency, such as a hurricane, tornado or snowstorm.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia do not meet emergency planning standards for schools and child care providers, the 2014 Disaster Report Card says.

“For seven years we have done this report card on states and minimum requirements for children,” said Richard Bland, Save the Children’s director for policy and advocacy. “We know that disaster can strike anytime and children are the most vulnerable.”

Bland said 69 million children are separated from their families every day through school and various forms of child care.

Save the Children’s report, created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, looks at four so-called “tenets” within each state: evacuation and relocation plans; family-child reunification plans; children with special needs plans; and k-12 multiple disaster plans.

According to the report, Georgia failed in three of those areas, satisfying only the requirement of having created k-12 multiple disaster plans.

In late January, metro Atlanta became a national laughingstock when the region was paralyzed by 2 inches of snow and ice. Roads, the government and businesses shut down, and a normal 30-minute commute froze into a 20-hour standstill that left highways littered with abandoned cars. But perhaps most frightening for parents was that more than 2,000 schoolchildren had to spend the night on school buses or in classrooms.

Georgia’s lack of regulations on when to close schools or stagger release times was partly to blame, Bland said. “If there were more specific provisions, there might have been less confusion about where to meet and how to meet.”

Bland said his organization is still “trying to figure out” why Georgia is “refusing to regulate.”

“All of this is more relevant for Georgia in a year when a 2-inch snowstorm caused such a standstill,” Bland said. “Yet the child care regulators have yet to update their regulations to meet minimum standards.”

But Reg Griffin, a spokesman for Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, said he isn’t sure the state is failing. His department, which administers Georgia’s Pre-K Program and licenses and monitors roughly 6,000 center-based and home-based child care facilities, said his office is still studying the report.

“We don’t know how the information was gathered,” Griffin said.

He said his department requires strict protocols for child care facilities, which include written evacuation plans and regular fire drills. Each site is also inspected twice a year.

“You can’t even get a license in Georgia without a plan,” Griffin said. “We believe those issues are being addressed, but it is our responsibility to sit down and see what they found and improve it if necessary. We have a good proactive record of working across agencies to improve conditions for all of Georgia’s youngest children. Safety is at the top of our list.”

During the 2014 legislative session, state Rep. Kimberly Alexander (D-Hiram) introduced a bill intended to address some of the preparedness issues that came to light during Snowpocalypse. The proposal died quietly.

“This bill was … important because it was preparing kids for disaster,” Alexander said.

She said she intends to try again during the next legislative session.

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