A Sustainable Response to Disaster

Eureka Street, 19 February 2020, feature image by Claire Warren, 2019.

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.

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.’

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