I was 10 years old when I first spent time in Louisiana to film Dreamer. It was a year before Hurricane Katrina would devastate the lives of too many children and families along the Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to Mississippi. As I was watching the news coverage from the safety of my home, I couldn't help but wonder 'What if...?' 'What if Katrina had struck while I was there? What if I got separated from my family and left on my own?'
I was just a kid. I would have been helpless and that petrified me. I thought of all the other 10-year-olds in New Orleans for whom those what ifs had become an unexpected reality. Children often suffered the most after Katrina. They lost their family, their homes, pets, schools and entire neighborhoods. Many were separated from their parents and housed in crowded shelters where they didn't feel safe.
Katrina was a wake-up call for our country, making us realize that we were not ready to protect the most vulnerable in an emergency—children. A decade later, as kids who lost their childhood to Katrina grow into adults—many about the same age as me—we must think of the next generation of 10-year-olds, like a girl named Da'juan, who face the risk of another Katrina every day. I met Da'juan, who was born the same year the hurricane hit, and her younger sister, Dajah, during a visit to New Orleans in late August with Save the Children, a non-profit organization I have recently joined as artist ambassador.
Not just in Louisiana or Mississippi, but children all over America are at risk of an emergency. More than one-third of the entire U.S. population lives in areas prone to natural disasters. Superstorm Sandy's unprecedented path of destruction along the East Coast seven years after Katrina was another tragic reminder that disasters can happen anywhere and at any time.
That's why I teamed up with Save the Children to organize a Prep Rally at the Treme Recreation Center in New Orleans. Looking for a fun way to make disaster preparedness a priority for children and families, Save the Children came up with the idea of Prep Rallies as a signature part of their Get Ready, Get Safe campaign led by Lassie (yes, that Lassie!). Over the past year, they have held rallies at schools and community centers in 25 states.
Last month, I joined Lassie on her mission to keep kids safe. Lassie made the day fun and unforgettable for the children. Together, we took a preparedness pledge, participated in a relay race carrying disaster supplies, and I learned some new dance moves from Lassie and the kids. We sent the little ones home with backpacks stocked with emergency supply must-haves such as a flashlight, pen and paper for drawing, and even a teddy bear to provide some much-needed comfort when times get tough.
Now is the perfect time to call attention to the importance of being ready for any emergency because September is National Preparedness Month. We need to make sure that families, communities, and our nation's leaders are ready to protect children before the next disaster strikes, so kids like Da'juan and her sister Dajah never have to go through an emergency unprepared.
It's only a matter of time before our country faces another Katrina, but that doesn't mean Da'juan and Dajah should have to grow up in fear. Knowing that their families are prepared for the worst makes them feel safe and protected. Now they can focus on the fun things in life—such as being kids.
Film actress Dakota Fanning has starred in over 35 films, including I Am Sam, Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat, Man on Fire, War of the Worlds, Uptown Girls, Dreamer, Charlotte's Web, The Secret Life of Bees, The Runaways, Coraline, and The Twilight Saga. She is the youngest actor to have been nominated for a Screen Actors' Award and can next be seen in The Benefactor opposite Richard Gere and Theo James. Fanning, who has traveled the U.S. on behalf of Save the Children to visit families and children affected by poverty and natural disaster, is the organization's newest artist ambassador.