Hurricane Katrina severely damaged or destroyed coastal Mississippi’s early childhood infrastructure, including child care centers, family child care homes and the regional agency that provided resources to them. Because young children in the disaster area desperately needed secure oases, and because parents had to have child care to get back to work, the Mississippi State University (MSU) Early Childhood Institute (ECI) developed a plan to help child care facilities reopen as rapidly as was safe.
In implementing this plan over the last six months, we have made many new friends and have discovered the potential of public-private partnerships to act quickly in a crisis.
As soon as we drafted our plan for the Rebuilding After Katrina Project, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation committed $1.25 million, adding another $300,000 soon after. Just as quickly, Chevron pledged to rebuild centers in Jackson County; the international relief organization Save the Children focused on repairs in Harrison County; and several other major donors came forward, including two anonymous donors who made contributions of $500,000 each. Thanks to fast decisions by the leaders of these corporate and foundation partners, we have been able to restore a significant portion of the child care capacity in Jackson and Harrison Counties and to provide new learning materials and special training on social-emotional trauma for child care providers in other counties. (A report of the first six months of the Rebuilding After Katrina Project is available online at earlychildhood.msstate.edu.)
Chevron, a sponsor of another ECI project, asked ECI to assess damages to child care facilities in Jackson County, the location of its Pascagoula refinery. We drove door-to-door September 15, 2005, detouring around fallen trees and power lines, covering the communities of Pascagoula, Moss Point, Ocean Springs, Gautier, Vancleave and Hurley. ECI also sent assessment teams to other parts of the disaster area, finding some centers were nothing but rubble and others where a thick black mold covered what was left of the floors.
After each assessment trip, we compiled our findings in ECI’s Early Childhood Atlas, a database with mapping tools that supports spatial analysis. As the Mississippi Department of Health resumed its licensing operation, it also relayed damage reports to the Atlas team, which produced maps and reports upon request. On October 6, ECI reported that from 62% to 94% of the slots in licensed child care centers in the three coastal counties were destroyed or potentially destroyed.
After our initial assessment of Jackson County, Chevron determined that the corporation itself should pay for repairs of child care centers in Jackson County. Chevron reassigned some of its own construction crews and coordinated repairs with ECI.
Meanwhile, several organizations in the state had formed a new coalition, Embrace Mississippi’s Children, to help children living in shelters and to collect new learning materials for damaged child care facilities. Guided by early childhood leaders who experienced the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, ECI and the Mississippi State University Extension Service prepared “wish lists” of books and materials that Embrace would accept. From across the country, individuals, organizations and even children, families and staffs of child care facilities responded, sending tons of materials and approximately $128,000 in monetary gifts.
ECI gained another major partner when Save the Children, an international relief organization, dispatched a team to the Mississippi Coast. Led by Jeanne-Aimee deMarrais, the team set up headquarters in the heavily damaged community of Moss Point and quickly identified ECI as a key partner. With Chevron taking the lead in Jackson County, Save the Children undertook to rebuild 34 child care facilities in neighboring Harrison County. Hancock County, “ground zero” for wind damages, will take longer, but we are working to reestablish child care there, too.
While the immediate focus was on reopening centers, the social-emotional needs of young children, their families, and early childhood teachers and caregivers also were a priority. ECI collaborated with Save the Children to adapt a well-regarded psychosocial intervention program for use with younger children. In addition, the institute sponsored several workshops for early childhood teachers and caregivers about helping young children rebound from emotional trauma.
As the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Katrina neared, ECI planned long-term training and on-site consultation for social-emotional support, so that child care providers in the disaster area can help young children discover and practice innate coping skills.
Child care resource and referral agencies (R&Rs) commonly offer technical assistance and marketing help for child care providers in particular geographic areas. However, Mississippi has been behind most states in the development of a true R&R network.
When Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the home of the Gulf Coast Child Care Resource and Referral Agency at Biloxi, the agency turned to the MSU Extension Service to take over its operation. MSU Extension Service folded operation of the Gulf Coast R&R into its developing network of R&R offices, finding new office space on the Jefferson Davis campus of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and recruiting new administrative staff.
Thanks to support by the Mississippi Center for Non-Profits and United Way of South Mississippi, as well as the grant by the Kellogg Foundation, ECI was able to provide partial funding for the reorganized Gulf Coast R&R.
To use hurricane recovery as a catalyst for lasting improvements in program quality, ECI allocated a significant portion of the grant from the Kellogg Foundation to the MSU Extension Service for training and technical assistance to family child care providers — those who care for a few children in their homes. ECI also collaborated with the MSU Extension Service to hold workshops on literacy experiences and other aspects of high-quality early childhood education for hundreds of employees of center-based programs that received books and materials donated through Embrace.
ECI systematically assessed the quality of the programs in Harrison and Hancock counties, identifying centers with low scores for additional training, technical assistance and follow-up assessment. Supporting this approach of incorporating quality improvements into the goals of the Rebuilding After Katrina Project, Save the Children required the centers that it rebuilt to enroll staff members in the ECI/MSU Extension Service professional development program.
Better preparedness for child care
Our new goal is to use the energy of Katrina recovery to fuel long-term improvements in emergency preparedness for the early childhood infrastructure. To share what we have learned, ECI is developing model procedures for communication between child care agencies and emergency management agencies, and expanding the Early Childhood Atlas as an interstate repository of key data in support of child care emergency preparedness.
The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies has joined ECI as a lead partner in this initiative, which we hope to pilot in Mississippi so that children below school-age will be a part of all emergency management plans.
At the same time, of course, we hope that our state will never again experience the terrible destruction and losses of Hurricane Katrina.
Cathy Grace, Ed.D., is a professor at Mississippi State University and director of the MSU Early Childhood Institute.