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entitled 'Lessons Learned for Protecting and Educating Children after 
the Gulf Coast Hurricanes' which was released on May 12, 2006.

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May 11, 2006:

Congressional Committees:

Subject: Lessons Learned for Protecting and Educating Children after 
the Gulf Coast Hurricanes:

In August and September 2005, thousands of children were displaced from 
their homes as a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Questions were 
raised about their safety and the services provided to the most 
vulnerable children affected by the hurricanes: unaccompanied minors 
and children in foster care. In addition, thousands of school-aged 
children requiring educational services were displaced from their 

In view of these circumstances, we conducted work under the Comptroller 
General's authority to learn more about the challenges encountered and 
lessons learned in:

(1) locating missing children;

(2) locating and serving Louisiana's displaced foster children; and:

(3) reopening K-12 schools and educating displaced school-aged children.

In February 2006, we offered or provided briefings to the staffs of 
your committees on our preliminary observations. Enclosed is a briefing 

During the course of our work, officials from the U.S. Departments of 
Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education informed us that they are 
taking a number of steps to address the challenges that we identified, 
and we reflected those actions in our document, where appropriate. As a 
result, we are not making any recommendations at this time. We provided 
this document to officials from HHS, Education, and the National Center 
for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The officials generally 
agreed with our conclusions or provided technical comments that were 
incorporated into our document.

We are sending copies of this briefing to the cognizant congressional 
committees, HHS and Education. We will make copies available to others 
upon request. This briefing also will be available on the GAO Web site 
at [Hyperlink,] Should you or your staff have any 
questions, please contact me at (202) 512-7215. Key contributors may be 
found on the last page of the briefing. 

Signed By:

Cynthia M. Fagnoni:
Managing Director: 
Education, Workforce,and Income Security:

List of Committees:

The Honorable Max Baucus:
Ranking Minority Member:
Committee on Finance:
United States Senate:

The Honorable Michael B. Enzi:
The Honorable Edward M. Kennedy:
Ranking Minority Member:
Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions:
United States Senate:

The Honorable Wally Herger:
The Honorable Jim McDermott:
Ranking Minority Member:
Subcommittee on Human Resources:
Committee on Ways and Means:
House of Representatives:


[End of section]


Briefing for Congressional Staff:
May 2006: 

Gulf Coast Hurricanes: Lessons Learned for Protecting and Educating 

Why GAO Did This Study: 

In August and September 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused 
devastating damage to states along the Gulf Coast.  In the aftermath of 
the storms, many questions were raised about the status of the 
thousands of children living in the affected areas.  We prepared this 
preliminary information under the Comptroller General’s authority to 
learn more about (1) the number of missing children and the challenges 
and lessons learned in locating them; (2) the number of foster and 
other children receiving child welfare services in Louisiana, in 
particular, who were affected by the storm, and the challenges and 
lessons learned in locating and serving them; and (3) the number of 
schoolchildren displaced by the storm, the damage to their schools, and 
the challenges and lessons learned for educating displaced school-aged 

Summary of Findings: 

Gulf Coast state and local officials and others throughout the country 
have worked hard to protect and support children affected by the 
hurricanes. However, a number of lessons learned from these hurricanes 
could improve future responses to catastrophic events and, in some 
cases, to other disasters as well.

* State and local disaster plans could better protect children if they 
integrated the needs of child welfare and education agencies. For 
example, schools can reopen more quickly when local relief officials 
work with school personnel to coordinate how resources will be 
allocated.  With schools in operation, communities can focus on 
recovery. Moreover, child welfare and education agencies can better 
prepare for and respond to large-scale disasters by maintaining 
emergency contact information for staff and foster parents and 
developing evacuation instructions.  

* Children could benefit from data-sharing agreements among 
organizations. Agreements to share data on displaced children and 
families could help speed efforts to locate them.

* Flexibility in certain federal reporting requirements can allow 
states and localities to focus more attention on recovery efforts. 


Prior to the hurricanes:

* Relative to other states in the nation, the four affected 
states—Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas—had among the highest 
percentages of children in poverty based on 2000 data from the Census 

- Mississippi 27.0%;
- Louisiana 26.6%;
- Alabama 21.5%;
- Texas	 20.5%.

* Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi students scored lower than the 
national average on the reading and math National Assessment of 
Educational Progress; Texas students scored about the same as the 
national average in reading and slightly higher in math. 

Agency Comments: 

We provided this document to officials from the U.S. Departments of 
Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education, as well as the National 
Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The officials 
generally agreed with our conclusions or provided technical comments 
that were incorporated into our findings. 

Missing Children: 

Facts on Missing Children: 

* After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, approximately 5,200 children were 
reported missing to NCMEC.

* All of the instances of children reported missing to NCMEC were 
resolved by March 2006. 

Missing Children Challenges: 

The reasons children were separated from their families are not fully 
understood, but in many cases children were evacuated separately from 
parents and were sent to different shelters. Because of NCMEC’s staff 
of trained investigators, some of whom are retired law enforcement 
officers, with experience finding children at risk, the Department of 
Justice asked the organization to help reunite children and families.  
NCMEC faced some challenges, namely:

Disaster Planning and Service Delivery:

* NCMEC had to adapt its definition of missing children and who can 
report them missing. Previously only law enforcement agencies, parents, 
or legal guardians could report children missing. After the storm, the 
center accepted reports from nonparents of children displaced by the 

* Because of large call volumes, NCMEC added staff and phone lines to 
handle hurricane-specific calls.

Data and Record Management:
* Officials from NCMEC told us that both the American Red Cross and 
FEMA had information on the location of children in their databases, 
but it was difficult to obtain this information because of privacy 
concerns. NCMEC signed memorandums of understanding with both 
organizations, but the negotiations and review process to complete 
these memorandums slowed efforts to locate the children. The U.S. 
Postal Service made data available to NCMEC to help find missing 

* All of the children reported missing were not necessarily 
unaccompanied or in harm’s way. Because nonguardians, such as 
neighbors, could report a child as missing, some children who were safe 
with their families or other guardians were probably reported missing. 

Figure: Finding Missing Children after the Hurricanes: 

[See PDF for Image] 

Source: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 

[End of image] 

Lessons Learned: 

* Having an adequate number of trained staff present during a large-
scale evacuation can help ensure that families are kept together.  
Child welfare workers in Louisiana were deployed to evacuation sites 
for Hurricane Rita to ensure that children were placed with their 

* Standing agreements for data sharing among organizations tracking 
missing persons and the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency 
Management Agency (FEMA) can help locate missing persons more quickly. 

* Trained investigators and retired law enforcement officials can help 
locate missing children after disasters. 

Child Welfare: 

Child Welfare in Louisiana: 

Foster Children: 

* Of Louisiana’s 5,000 foster children, close to 2,000 were displaced 
by Hurricane Katrina.

* Approximately 370 foster children were displaced from the state, and 
about 150 remained outside of Louisiana in 19 states as of April 2006.

* All foster children were located by November 2005.

Other Child Welfare Services: 

* Prior to the hurricanes, approximately 1,885 families were under 
investigation for abuse and neglect, and 364 were receiving family 
services in the affected areas.

* After the hurricanes, Louisiana ran a shelter for 24 unaccompanied 


* As many as 900 employees from Louisiana’s Department of Social 
Services (DSS) were diverted to set up and staff emergency shelters for 
over 5 weeks, reducing the time available to support child welfare 
services.  As soon as the shelters began to empty and workers returned 
to full- time child welfare work, Hurricane Rita approached the state 
and called for another evacuation and staff to shelter duty.

* About 640 of the state’s social workers were also initially displaced 
from the heavily affected communities, making it even more difficult to 
find displaced foster children. 

Child Welfare: Louisiana's Challenges: 

Louisiana child welfare officials faced a number of challenges in 
locating and serving displaced foster children and other children 
needing services or protection.

Disaster Planning: 

Louisiana officials told us that the state’s disaster plans did not 
anticipate such a large-scale event. Foster parents knew that they were 
required to contact their social workers when leaving the state, but 
phones were inoperable and social workers were also displaced. Social 
workers’ phones were not always operational for weeks after the storm 
and could not relay the information to the state agency.  The state 
publicized a toll-free hotline for foster parents to communicate with 
state officials.  Officials relied on foster parents to call the toll-
free number to report the location of the foster children and any 
special needs that they or their foster children may have needed.  
State officials were also able to send monthly foster payment checks to 
foster parents at their new location.  

Data and Record Management: 

* Louisiana officials also told us it was difficult to contact foster 
parents because their emergency contact information was limited and 
located in case records that were inaccessible for weeks following the 
storm.  In addition, the state was in the process of creating a 
statewide child welfare information system but did not have extensive 
case information in a central database.  

* In some localities, social workers recreated case files from memory 
and other documentation because close to 300 current case files had 
been destroyed and even more were inaccessible. As a result of limited 
access to child welfare case files and other disruptions, some court 
proceedings related to adoptions and reunifications had to be delayed.  

* Louisiana officials told us that it was difficult to get information 
from the American Red Cross and FEMA on families they were unable to 
locate.  Louisiana officials said they had to sign a memorandum of 
understanding with American Red Cross officials which stated that the 
agency would contact the Red Cross shelters prior to entering to search 
for foster children.  Louisiana officials said that by the time the 
memorandum was approved, the American Red Cross had closed its 

Service Delivery: 

* Foster children: All out-of-state foster family cases are being 
managed by caseworkers in Louisiana with limited supervision provided 
by caseworkers in the host state.  Many foster families who were living 
out of state faced problems finding providers to accept their Medicaid 
card for mental health services and medication. When it has needed to 
do so, Louisiana has contracted for services such as short-term 
caretakers for foster children to help displaced foster families. In 
addition, heightened levels of stress can increase the likelihood of 
abuse or neglect, which can increase the need for child protective 
services and foster parents.  In some cases, foster parents were unable 
to cope with the effects of the storm and returned children to the 
child welfare agency.
* Children receiving other child welfare services: Many families were 
receiving services while their child was residing in their home, and 
other families were under investigation for abuse and neglect. State 
officials placed a priority on the cases of children determined to be 
at high risk of abuse and focused their initial effort on locating and 
serving these families. In cases where they were unable to find the 
families, officials requested and received assistance from NCMEC.

Concerns over Federal Assistance:

* State officials told us that they were concerned about how their 
future federal funding would be affected in the aftermath of the storm 
and whether additional funds would be made available to them to help 
with recovery efforts. For example, some funding elements are linked to 
goals in a program improvement plan (PIP) that they were unlikely to 
meet.  State officials told us that HHS has addressed their concerns by 
renegotiating the PIP in light of the effects of the storms. 

* State officials also requested from HHS a number of waivers for other 
statutory requirements for federal child welfare programs.  HHS 
officials told us that they did not have the authority to grant the 
requested waivers for certain child welfare programs, but issued an 
information memorandum reminding states of the flexibilities that 
existed within some of the current program structure.  In the aftermath 
of the hurricanes, HHS officials are working with the gulf coast states 
to assess the needs of the states and whether HHS may need additional 
waiver authority to respond to future events.  In addition to its 
weekly conference calls with the states following Hurricane Katrina, 
HHS has provided additional funding to its sponsored resource centers 
to provide training and technical assistance to the states affected by 
the hurricanes.

* HHS officials told us they needed the state to provide frequent 
information on the status of children under its care. However, state 
officials told us that HHS’s initial reporting and data requirements 
diverted time and attention from their more immediate needs. 

Lessons Learned: 

* Future state disaster plans should include evacuation information and 
instructions for foster parents and social workers.  Louisiana is in 
the process of conducting foster parent emergency preparedness courses. 
In addition, HHS is planning a conference focusing on disaster 
preparedness and recovery in which child welfare officials from the 
affected states can share lessons learned with officials from other 

* Updated emergency contact information and automated case file systems 
could help locate and serve foster children more quickly. 

* Standing agreements among state child welfare officials and the 
American Red Cross and FEMA on data sharing and coordination could 
expedite recovery efforts. 


Facts on Education: 

Displaced Students: 

* Thousands of students, from kindergarten to the 12th grade (K-12), 
were displaced by the hurricanes.

* Schools from nearly every state enrolled some of the more than 
150,000 displaced K-12 students in fall 2005. 

* The five states with the most displaced students were:

- Louisiana (46,300);
- Texas (45,200);
- Mississippi (18,100);
- Georgia (10,600), and:
- Alabama (7,100).

* The nationwide number of displaced students has fallen slightly since 
the fall of 2005.

Damage to Facilities: 
* Louisiana officials said that 29 schools were destroyed, and about 
half of the state’s schools were damaged.

* Mississippi officials said that 16 schools were destroyed, and over 
half of the state’s districts reported some damage. 

Education: Challenges for the Affected States: 

State and local education officials faced challenges in restarting 
schools and educating displaced students.  We identified the following 

Disaster planning: 

Some districts had crisis plans, but not for large-scale disasters in 
which the population did not immediately return home. In these 
districts, officials had difficulty locating employees, which was 
essential to reopening schools.  School district officials needed to 
work closely with other local officials to focus resources on reopening 

Service delivery: 

States, with assistance from Education, required districts to 
immediately enroll displaced students through the McKinney-Vento 
Homeless Assistance Act. Districts generally enrolled displaced 
students quickly under difficult circumstances. The large number of 
displaced students in some districts led to a strain on classroom 
space, books, teachers, school buses, bus drivers, and counseling 
services. Finding individuals with the expertise to help special-needs 
students was also difficult, especially in small districts.

Data/records management: 

Displaced students’ records were often not immediately available to 
their new districts. As a result, districts often enrolled students 
based on information provided by parents about grade level, disability 
status, and other factors. Louisiana and Texas collaborated to 
eventually make displaced Louisiana students’ records available to 
authorized Texas personnel. Mississippi student records, including 
academic records, were automated and made available to students’ new 

Financial difficulties: 

Districts in areas directly affected by the storms and those that 
enrolled displaced students faced financial challenges, including 
providing services to additional students. As a result, Congress 
appropriated $1.4 billion to help reopen elementary and secondary 
schools and serve displaced students. The first installment was made 
available to states in January 2006; Education plans to release the 
final installment in May 2006. Although grateful for assistance, state 
and local officials said that they would still bear a significant 
financial burden as a result of the storms. 
* Property tax revenues, a key funding source for schools, will likely 
be undercut in areas with property damage. State funding for schools 
may also be undercut by the effects of the storms. 

* State and local officials indicated that displaced students often 
require additional services, such as counseling and remediation. 

* Federal assistance for displaced students under the Hurricane 
Education Recovery Act is available for 1 year only, yet state 
officials reported that a large number of displaced students are likely 
to remain in their new districts.

Federal flexibility: 

State and district officials expressed the need for flexibility in 
meeting the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 
(NCLBA). Upon request of the affected states, Education quickly granted 
some flexibility regarding certain NCLBA requirements. State officials 
were concerned, however, about the effect of displaced students on 
their NCLBA academic accountability results. Education officials said 
that any decisions about how the students will be included in these 
results will be made in upcoming months. 



If you have any questions concerning this briefing, please call Cindy 
Fagnoni, Managing Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security, 
at (202) 512- 7215 or Kay Brown, Assistant Director, Education, 
Workforce, and Income Security, at (202) 512-3674.

Other key contributors to this briefing were Scott Spicer and Anjali 

Scope and Methodology: 

To do our work, we:

* reviewed federal, state, and local data and elements of their 
disaster plans.

* interviewed officials from: 

- the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services; 

- the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; 

- state education officials in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and 
Alabama; and; 

- state child welfare officials in Louisiana, Texas, and Alabama.  
(Mississippi state child welfare officials were not available to 
discuss how the Gulf Coast hurricanes affected children within their 
child welfare system.)

* conducted a site visit to Louisiana, the state with the highest 
number of displaced and missing children; in addition to the state 
education and child welfare officials, we interviewed: 

- public and private school district officials; 

- social workers and foster parents.

* conducted our work from October 2005 to March 2006 in accordance with 
generally accepted government auditing standards.

Much of the data regarding numbers of children affected are officials’ 
best estimates. Determining exact numbers has been difficult because of 
the extent of the storm damage and the large numbers of displaced 

Related GAO Reports: 

Hurricane Katrina: GAO’s Preliminary Observations Regarding 
Preparedness, Response, and Recovery, GAO-06-442T, Washington, D.C.: 
March 8, 2006.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: Provision of Charitable Assistance, GAO-06-
297T, Washington, D.C.: December 13, 2005.

September 11: More Effective Collaboration Could Enhance Charitable 
Organizations’ Contributions in Disasters, GAO-03-259, Washington, 
D.C.: December 19, 2002.

Disaster Management: Improving the Nation’s Response to Catastrophic 
Disasters, RCED-93-186, Washington, D.C.: July 23, 1993.