why local knowledge is essential for disaster recovery in Gippsland
Overcoming obstacles is second nature to the community of Gippsland. The people of this region have seen it all: fires, floods, droughts and extreme weather conditions. And each time, these capable, resourceful and independent communities bounce back.
However, the resumption of the 2019/2020 black summer bushfires followed by the COVID-19 pandemic was different.
Even before these events, we were looking for vulnerability to natural hazards, risk ownership and diversity and inclusion nationally through our work with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Center.
Through a mix of interviews, focus groups and surveys, we researched information about communities, how they recover after a disaster and which factors have the most impact. We focused on the strengths of the community and how to develop them.
Our recently published report, Growing the seeds: recovery, strength and capacity in the communities of Gippsland, points out that recovery is often non-linear. It is not just damage to infrastructure, homes, the environment and farmland that makes recovery difficult; the emotional and physical toll is often also exhausting.
The report identifies several opportunities for change, including the need for a long-term plan (five years minimum) to build community emergency management capacity in the region – well in advance of the next disaster.
A brutal moment
The 2019-20 fires damaged more than half of the East Gippsland Shire, an area of over 1.16 million hectares. More than 400 homes and businesses were lost and four people lost their lives. Areas like Mallacoota were at acute risk. In some areas, communities were threatened for weeks and repeatedly evacuated, exhausting them before the recovery process began.
Then the pandemic struck, disrupting the established pattern of recovery where people come together to understand what happened and begin to rebuild their communities. One person describes the moment as “brutal”. Another said:
When the fires happened, you had two amazing people come in, opened the room, and everyone walked in, and they started making Friday night dinners and everyone was there. There were around 200 people every Friday night and then COVID put an end to it.
Through online community consultations, interviews and focus groups, we asked community members to identify the forces that supported recovery and opportunities for change.
We also surveyed 614 people in October 2020 in the fire-affected areas of Victoria and New South Wales, with 31% of respondents from Victoria and 69% from NSW.
When asked what their community’s strengths were after the bushfires, they included generosity and kindness (69%), resilience (61%), and active volunteering (59%).
When asked to identify the main challenges since the bushfire, COVID was named as the main challenge (49%), followed by environmental damage (39%), anxiety (31 %) and general fatigue (26%).
The combination of the bushfires and the pandemic has also created economic risks and disrupted supply chains. Small businesses represent 98% of the local economy and many of them depend heavily on tourism.
Recovery through the strength and capacity of the community
Many of the forces needed to drive recovery and resilience are already at the heart of these communities. These abilities are more diverse and more widespread than is often assumed.
There is considerable wealth and capacity in some areas, but also a high level of social and economic vulnerability, some living hand to mouth.
There is significant local knowledge in risk management and recovery, which is often overlooked by outside experts. As one person told us:
You’ve got a bureaucracy from Melbourne who thinks we’re just a bunch of bumpkins from countries who don’t quite know what we’re doing, but we know our community better than they do.
Voluntary and informal economies are important and underpin the resilience of communities. However, formal recovery strategies do not target these areas very well; some people in the informal economy found that they were not at all eligible for economic or commercial support.
The JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs have helped maintain employment (albeit at lower productivity levels than in the past). JobKeeper has now ended, but support is still needed to boost productivity and help the local economy recover.
We also found:
the government and some support agencies often lacked knowledge about the cultural, physical and social structures of different communities
some policies have had perverse effects (for example, HomeBuilder scholarship resulted in a lack of available builders)
programs and communication were often inadequate and did not meet the diverse needs of specific communities or cohorts within them
a lack of clarity about the community’s role in response and recovery, and the risks for which it is responsible
the short-term allocation of resources and funding has sometimes created an environment of uncertainty; for example, some participants raised concerns that vulnerable community members may be at risk when contracts for certain programs run out, as the service offered would cease or be run by a new contract holder. As one person told us:
You can’t just bring someone up now and say, “ Here you go, you take control of all my people, ” because the relationships and trust that you build during this time is not something that you can confide in someone else.
Know the strengths of the community and support them
Recovery processes will never be perfect and we can no longer assume that communities will have time to recover from one disaster before the next one happens. As one person put it:
People suffer from collective trauma, which creates anxiety and irritability. So it’s gonna be hard to move on and I believe [name removed] will be a truly changed place, something that will reverberate from top to bottom in every fire-ravaged community.
In areas prone to natural hazards like Gippsland, it is essential to know the strengths that already exist in the community so that you can harness them in the event of a disaster. In other words, we have to find ways to support and develop the capacity of the community.
Listening to communities
It is essential that communities, governments and emergency services have a common understanding of the priorities after a disaster and what can realistically be achieved.
A community capacity database would support more effective planning, policy and program development, as would a longer-term collaborative project to identify and develop community capacity.
By listening to these communities, we can learn from their experiences and support the development of community pathways to recovery.
Read more: More than a decade after the Black Saturday fires, it’s time to take long-term disaster recovery planning seriously
If this article has raised any issues for you, or if you are concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. This story is part of a series The Conversation is about the link between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.