April 6, 2022

Environment

No relief

By Kieran Pender
Image of flood waters rising in Lismore, New South Wales, March 29, 2022. Image © Darren England / AAP Images

Lismore, New South Wales, March 29, 2022. Image © Darren England / AAP Images

From fires to floods, Australia is failing our disaster survivors

Effective disaster recovery is first and foremost about practicalities. For those who survive bushfires, storms or floods, lofty rhetoric and grand announcements do not cut it. Survivors need support and solutions: roofs over heads, assistance rebuilding, help today and help tomorrow. In modern Australia, too often they don’t get it.

Witnessing the damaging floods in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, I have felt a deep sense of pessimism. I have been based on the New South Wales far south coast for the past two years, frequently reporting on the painfully slow recovery from the 2019–20 Black Summer blazes. I have seen firsthand how governments at all levels have failed bushfire survivors. I dread that flood victims will be next.

More than two years after the devastating bushfires, most of those who lost their homes remain in temporary accommodation. Only about one in ten have finished rebuilding. Post disaster reconstruction is always difficult. There are often planning barriers and underinsurance problems. Survivors find the process retraumatising. But governments have done too little to help.

One of the major challenges for those rebuilding after the Black Summer has been trade and supply shortages, exacerbated by COVID-19. As I reported across the South Coast region, one story became emblematic in my mind of our governments’ disaster-recovery failures. Graeme Freedman, who lost his home near Cobargo on New Year’s Eve 2019, told me that he and fellow survivors were struggling to rebuild because they could not get tradespeople. Their healing denied, their mental health battered, because they could not get a plumber for love nor money.

Ever the pragmatist, Freedman had an idea. The defence force, in Canberra, has plumbers, he recalled. And the bushfire-hit south coast needed plumbers. “We were trying to see if there was any possibility of getting apprentices to come down,” he told me. “But it was just all too hard for them.”

Disaster recovery is about pragmatic solutions to difficult problems. But as state capacity has been hollowed out at the federal, state and local level, governments lack the practical resources to help. Instead they throw money at the problem – even if sometimes it is rorted or unfairly allocated. But there are some problems that money can’t immediately fix, such as localised trade shortages. Which is why, at the same time as many of the private sector–run, government-funded support services withdraw from impacted communities, so many survivors remain in caravans and sheds.

Compare this to a story from the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009. In Kinglake, the two local petrol stations were razed. With uncertainty around remediation and costs, the operators did not wish to rebuild. It left the township without petrol, a real problem in a regional community. Anger built – until the state government intervened. Victoria’s bushfire recovery agency built a temporary petrol station in just a handful of months.

It was extremely unorthodox; the state does not usually build and run petrol stations. But times of crisis call for pragmatic solutions. In addition to the practical benefits, “having access to fuel locally provided an important psychological ‘boost’ to the community in its ongoing recovery and reconstruction”, a subsequent review found. And yet getting plumbers to the south coast was put in the too-hard basket. Bureaucracy trumped practical support.

Flood recovery is not bushfire recovery, of course. The impacts, and the required responses, are not entirely alike. I desperately hope that those impacted by the current floods have a better road to recovery than my community on the south coast. They deserve nothing less than the nation’s full support.

But both disasters should serve as a warning. The bushfires and the floods were unprecedented. Australia’s disaster recovery capacity needs to be overhauled and properly resourced to match.

The climate crisis will bring more fires, more floods, more storms and more destruction. It is a future of increasing devastation heralding an even greater need for swift, practical support in the short, medium and long term (research suggests that community recovery can take more than a decade). If the Black Summer was our first test of national resilience in this new era, we resoundingly failed. Any of our communities could suffer next.

Since those dark days of the Black Summer, I have heard countless bushfire survivors tell me that they feel alone, abandoned. Not by their local communities, which have been heroic in the face of adversity. But by the government and by our leaders. What is the government for, if not to act in a time of crisis, if not to support those who are suffering? As a nation we have failed bushfire survivors. We must do better for the disaster survivors that come next – starting with flood victims.

Kieran Pender

Kieran Pender is a writer and lawyer. He is an honorary lecturer at the Australian National University College of Law.

 

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