Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Education Facilities and Disasters

The significance of educational facilities during disaster is yet to be given the kind of attention, I believe it deserves. Education, itself is beginning to receive token mention in the debate on disaster preparedness and response (Kapucu, 2008). The impact of the recent earthquake in China on education facilities is beginning to bring this significane into focus.

Schools are buildings of mass occupancy. Large numbers of students and teachers occupy these buildings for at least five hours each day and at least nine months of the year. Often teachers can have as many as 60 students in one classrooms, particularly in developing countries - areas often hardly hit by hurricanes, typhoons, floods and earthquakes. This situation dramatically increases the risk and vunerabiities. Managing these students in these difficult situation with limited adults has not been affored the attention it deserves. An added risk is the construction and building codes which in the case of China appeared to be suspect and arguably tempered by not knowing the ages of these school buildings.

School buildings have also been known to be the most common means of shelter during disasters. In Dominica for example 75% of hurricane shelters are school plants. A large number of such shelters in Florida are also schools. It is essential then that more attention be paid to construction and building codes for schools. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Organisation of American States (OAS) have committed substantial resources throughout the Caribbean to retrofit and strengthen school buildings to ensure their safety as disaster shelters and centainly as institution of learning. By doing so, they ensure post-disaster education as well particular for those students at critical and transitional phases of their education.

Such attention to school plants require a place in the debates, discourse and literature on disasters and disaster management. Understanding how students are impacted beyond the pyschological and traumatic,an area in which the American Psychological Association (APA) has done substantial work is essential.

The National Clearinghouse for educational Facilities website http://www.edfacilities.org/checklist/index.cfm provides an excellent checklist with queries for assessing educational facilties as a precusor to making improvement to exisitng facilities or designing new ones. Central to the issues related to education facilities and disaster is the broad issue of child safety. Greater attention has to be paid to ensure children's safety during and after disasters and that generally, education takes palce in a safe environment.

Polices ans plans with regard to the use of schools as shelters and to esure smooth transitions from one function to the next does not exist and if it does, may be scant at best. School officials need to have clear blueprints on the approach to management of their school plants as eductional facilities and disaster shelters. This should formalize the relationship and increase the stake to ensure that school facilties meet the construction and building standards. This arragnement will represent a major step towards the often recommended colloboration among engineers, architects, local govenment, emergency and shelter managers and school officials as necessary for effective disaster management. In this way the children and their communties become winners.

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