Natural disasters hit the U.S. incredibly hard last year, and communities are still recovering. How a community recovers can determine how vulnerable children will be to long-term effects on their physical and mental health.
Regarding physical health, the intense effect natural disasters can have on kids is clear. Children are smaller and generally need more care than adults, so the physical strain can take a greater toll on their bodies.
After a 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, children were found to be more likely than adults to suffer from infections. After Hurricane Katrina, a study found many kids couldn't access personal doctors, medications or even medical records.
Regarding mental health, natural disasters can induce shock, anxiety and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. While those effects may subside and can even make future traumatic situations less stressful, some children may be left with chronic disorders.
"It varies by child, but if children receive supportive love and care from not only their families, but from others in the community, it can make all the difference and help them recover much better," said Jeanne-Aimée De Marrais, Save the Children's senior director of U.S. emergencies.
After Hurricane Maria, the international advocacy group Save the Children went to Puerto Rico to help. One of its biggest focuses was helping children recover from possible trauma and bringing back a sense of normalcy.
"People are living with a lot of fear right now. Families and children are living with — they're exhausted. A lot of them do not have electricity back, yet in their homes, or if they do, it's only recently come back," De Marrais said. "A lot of children are only going to schools only a couple hours a day because schools are not able — many schools are not able to go back to their regular schedules yet. Life is not normal for children."
On top of serving the immediate needs for clean water and child care support, the group helped renovate a gym in the mountain community of Ciales.
"For the community, it is so important to have a beautiful, functioning site where they can come together and play and have normal life in a situation that is often absolutely not normal," De Marrais said. "That's a sign of encouragement for resilience."
For future natural disasters, both Save the Children and the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommend parents teach children to prepare for a natural disaster. After it's over, parents are encouraged to talk to their children, limit media exposure about the disaster and keep kids involved in recovery efforts.