The Australian, 14 April 2021
When disaster hits, Australians are quick to help. Yet in the months and years after ashes flicker out, floodwaters recede or the cyclonic winds abate, a common story often emerges — afflicted communities feel left behind to rebuild alone as the world rolls on.
For disaster often hits communities already vulnerable. A fire or flood entrenches existing disadvantage, compounding stresses and trauma.
The landmark Beyond Bushfires report, released last week by the University of Melbourne, caps 10 years of study on the experience of Victorians affected by the Black Saturday bushfires. A decade after the disaster, only a third of people in the worst-affected areas feel their community is “mostly” or “fully” recovered. On an individual level, only six out of 10 felt their recovery was on track.
I read this important report with sadness. As a member of the independent advisory panel for the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund after Black Saturday in 2009, I know how carefully charities, government agencies and community leaders worked to create a new future for townships and families devastated on that dreadful day, which took 173 lives, along with 2000 houses and two entire townships.
Yet the survey results, long-running mental health challenges and evidence of an eight-year lag in school results underscore the challenge of rebuilding. Recovery is hard, hard work. Beyond Bushfires recommends governments invest in long-term frameworks for recovery from major disasters. It urges innovation to boost community resilience before, during and after the moment of crisis.
This is a timely message. There have been too many recent “one-in-a-hundred-year” events to miss the rise in frequency and intensity of disaster. This week Cyclone Seroja flattened homes and businesses along the West Australian coast. Many NSW communities hit by the recent floods had already experienced drought, bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic during the past 18 months.
If this is our future, urgent attention is required to longer-term responses. There is always scope to improve critical physical elements of recovery, such as accommodation and infrastructure. But equal attention is required on the intangible foundation for social and economic recovery through resilience. This cannot be the work of government alone. Resilience requires community-led activities, building social capital, ability to work collectively and a shared understanding of risk.
Strengthening communities begins before disaster hits and continues long after. Partnerships within the community, with commercial and charitable organisations and government agencies begin before the fire, flood or drought. As Beyond Bushfires suggests, establishing resilience for an afflicted community needs a five-year recovery plan and support across the board including financial, mental health and job retraining programs. It needs support for community leaders and flexible programs that recognise people regain their balance at very different rates.
The Royal Commission into National Natural Disasters further identified the need for recovery efforts to be “locally led and alert to the particular needs of affected communities”. In Mallacoota and Cobargo, both devastated by the Black Summer bushfires, we see evidence of this shift towards community-led recovery with independent associations established in each town to drive local change.
For such communities, resilience means more than platitudes. It is a real and dedicated focus on those affected by disaster and those committed to helping from government, non-profit organisations and for-purpose partners.
What we see when communities are actively planning in partnership with government agencies is that multiple dimensions of resilience are enhanced. These approaches are emerging in many states and present an opportunity for the soon-to-be-formed National Resilience, Relief and Recovery Agency.
There is evidence to inform this work. The Fire Adapted Community Learning Network in the US supports communities and government agencies to prepare for and recover from fires, and to work together to share the resulting knowledge. Similarly, the Beyond Bushfires study shows people who belonged to a local community group report better outcomes in the three to five years post-bushfires than those more isolated. Community bonds are the foundation of community-led resilience.
For our most vulnerable communities, those already living with disadvantage, resilience is both essential and may be difficult to achieve. I recall visits to devastated settlements in the immediate wake of Black Saturday, and the poverty of many affected by the fires. They had limited financial resources before the disaster, and even less afterwards.
The floods that ravaged NSW, the fires of the previous summer and the drought afflicting much of inland Australia for a decade all point to the challenge ahead. Now is the time to plan how we encourage more resilient communities by creating partnerships that begin before disaster and carry our fellow Australians through the worst of times. We are a generous people. Hopefully, we can also be a nation of foresight.
Glyn Davis is chief executive of the Paul Ramsay Foundation, which is dedicated to breaking the cycle of disadvantage.