A sustainable response to disaster



It has been a summer of biblical proportions. Fires, floods, smoke, and sickness have filled screens and smartphones with images of loss and destruction. In the midst of bushfire relief events and community raffles, concerns about how those in need can be best supported continue as emotions run high. While the nation grieves the loss of life and land, we need to begin the conversation of how we can respond mindfully to disaster and find sustainable solutions for disasters to come.

Comedian Celeste Barber on stage at Fire Fight concert (Getty Images/Cole Bennetts)

Professor Alexander ‘Sandy’ McFarlane has observed crisis and trauma responses in Australia since the Ash Wednesday fires, and noted that 'overemphasizing the need for acute assistance doesn't really give due credence to the importance of the long-term response. One of the really important issues is to let people know that this is not going to be solved today, and to give them a clear framework and understanding about how matters are going to be resolved'.

The lack of clear understanding about how best to help has led to accusations of mismanagement from small online fundraisers all the way up to the Australian Red Cross. When asked about the public anger towards the Red Cross, Director of Australian Programs, Noel Clement, said 'as long as people can see immediate needs not being met it's understandable… people will expect those funds to be on the ground as we are. What we have been explaining is that there'll be some people who don't come forward for weeks and months because they're coping with day to day survival or they're too proud to come forward, we want to make sure there’s funds for them when they do'.

Comedian Celeste Barber’s campaign to ‘please help in anyway you can’ has now been caught in legal negotiations after raising $52 million for a trust fund that can only support maintenance and administration costs for the NSW RFS. Despite huge public support, it remains unlikely that the funds raised will be able to go to her intended recipients, volunteer firefighters and those directly affected.

We talk an awful lot about 'mindfully' responding to situations. Mindful shopping, mindful eating, mindful exercise, even mindful hook-ups; perhaps now is the time to extend that mindfulness to how we understand and respond to disaster. This is not the first extreme weather event in Australia and likely far from the last, when the next 'black summer' arrives, will we have the emotional and financial reserves to again donate in the millions and sew hundreds of koala mittens?

Similar to someone gorging themselves on sugar as a form of comfort, only to crash once the hit wears off, the cycle of disaster, huge campaign, and help cannot continue as the time between the help and the next disaster narrows. Fires may be contained, but floods have now taken their toll on communities and we still haven’t finished the bushfire benefit concerts.


'If we as Australians are in this for the long haul, which it appears that we are, long-term action remains just as essential as the ‘boots on the ground’ response. Long after the Facebook fundraisers lapse and the benefit concerts conclude, there will still be Australians in need of support.'


To give mindfully in a time of disaster looks beyond the immediate needs to the longer-term commitments to communities. 'Some people aren't ready to rebuild, sometimes, make a decision about rebuilding, sometimes for a year, two years or longer,' said Mr Clement. After the initial funds roll in, mindfully giving an amount each week can help organisations deliver infrastructure and assistance to those who need it months and years after disaster, preventing a sudden influx and then lack of cash later down the road.

Professor McFarlane’s concerns lie in a similar place, 'I think we misplace our interests. The time when the help is really needed, the community's moved on, and the disaster victims are still very much trying to rebuild their lives,' he said. So many of us were 'buying from the bush' over this past Christmas, but what about the Christmas to come?

If we as Australians are in this for the long haul, which it appears that we are, long-term action remains just as essential as the ‘boots on the ground’ response. Long after the Facebook fundraisers lapse and the benefit concerts conclude, there will still be Australians in need of support. The Royal Commission into the fires will come and go, and it will tell us not much that we haven’t heard before; the fires were coming, and we were not prepared.

'People forget and when they use words like unprecedented, unforeseen, what they're allowing people to do is just forget the lessons of the past,' said Professor McFarlane, 'That is one of the things we can't afford to do… we need to hold onto the lessons that we've learned and to incorporate these into the future.'



Eliza SpencerEliza Spencer is a freelance journalist living in Sydney, chasing local stories. Combining previous study in both photography and journalism, she seeks to help make space for unheard voices in Australian society.

Main image: Comedian Celeste Barber on stage at Fire Fight concert (Getty Images/Cole Bennetts)

Topic tags: Eliza Spencer, bushfires, disaster response



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Existing comments

Thank you for this reminder, Yesterday we were helping a couple where the fire surrounded their place. It will take considerable and long term planning to repair the farm. The thinking, planning and clearing of the land is exhausting. The government has been active, financial and support for the immense task of clearing trees, corrugated iron is happening. Everything takes time, in a disaster. So thank you for reporting these comments: a timely reminder.
Denyse | 20 February 2020

Many (all?) of the conversations in our community, a community impacted directly by the fires, have been about the emotional impact. We start off by talking about the physical destruction of the landscape (which includes all life) and then we talk about how we felt during the disaster and how we are feeling now. Maybe the wider Australian community will move on. However, this is a time for re-assessing our whole ideology towards ecological functions. And realising that emotional impacts don't fade.
Pam | 20 February 2020

A very timely reminder to all of us who were not directly affected, but who, in our case, know friends who lost family members in fighting to save their properties, as well as those who lost property and possessions, but survived the ordeal . I suspect with the specter of climate change initiated disasters increasing, our need to help those affected will increase.It is very important that we, as well as the various relief agencies, charities and governments, plan for continuing assistance as those affected try and rebuild their lives .
Gavin O'Brien | 20 February 2020

Important and insightful comments, especially at a time when some journalists appear to think their task is to stir up emotion and promote chaos. Thank you, Eliza - your ‘mindful’ and rational insights are so necessary as the future shocks come faster and faster.
Joan Seymour | 20 February 2020

Thanks Eliza. You have raised a number of very pertinent and pressing issues. I think it should be mentioned that many climate scientists and emergency personnel have been trying to get conversations about climate change and the measures we need to take to prepare for extreme weather events for decades. The big problem is that many of our key politicians only listen to the executives of large corporations and ignored the warnings of these experts. And Morrison arrogantly refused to listen to the fire chiefs. It was this contributed to the lack of preparation for the 2019-2020 summer of hell. We urgently need leaders who will undertake long term planning to minimise the pollution causing climate change (and poisoning us all) work, while also listening to key people in emergency and community organisations to be much better prepared. We need to be spending tax dollars on preparing for these emergencies at home instead of spending billions on armaments which will mostly be used for fighting in US initiated wars. There is an often quoted saying in the occupational health and safety community that is very pertinent here - "Prevention is better than cure". However, the sad reality is that conservative LNP coalition and ALP governments have been just as remiss in the area of OH&S as they have been in planning to prevent climate change and the ensuing drastic weather emergencies.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 21 February 2020


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