BY CLAIRE-LOUISE VERMANDE
The 2019/2020 bushfire crisis enveloping much of Australia is leaving entire communities devastated as more than two thousand homes have been damaged or destroyed. As of 8 January more than 5,900 properties (homes and other buildings) have been lost, approximately 800 million animals have perished (according to the University of Sydney’s Professor Chris Dickman), and tragically 28 people have died. When in the midst of a disaster a person’s immediate fight for survival naturally takes precedence over thinking about their long-term future. However, as the crisis subsides in due course and rebuilding commences, the community will need to be led through its recovery phase. Jamie Simmonds, former director of the Strengthening Grantham Project, discusses the recovery process a community undergoes in the days, weeks and months following a natural disaster. In this post Simmonds discusses the importance of establishing a vision for the future of a town.
Simmonds says his experience in leading the relocation of a small South-East Queensland town to higher ground following a deadly flooding event in 2011 offers many lessons that can be applied to bushfire affected communities as they look to re-establish their roots. Through strong leadership and with community collaboration towns can be optimistic that they will once again thrive and now have an opportunity to plan a better and more refined future for themselves. This may not be clear in the immediate aftermath when anger and frustrations are at their height, but as clean-up exercises commence leaders and residents should then look to note what they want to see in their rebuilt communities.
“In the immediate aftermath you see anger, you see frustration, you see people who are very quiet and reserved. You see all kinds of different emotions bubbling up to the surface because people are going through a traumatic event and they don’t know what tomorrow is going to look like,” Simmonds says. “Soon after the disaster hits everyone comes in to help. Right now with the bushfires, you’ve got the firies and even the army fighting the disaster. Once the disaster is done and the rescue effort is over then the clean-up starts. Then you see the community overwhelmed with support, you get the donations, the government help, the volunteers coming in, everyone just wants to help. That’s a real positive time for most communities. In Grantham, at that time there was no shortage of help. We had to turn people away because there was nothing for them to do because there were so many people coming in helping with the clean-up and getting things back to normal.”
Although it may seem like it would be the farthest thought at that point in time for most, Simmonds says it is important for residents and leaders to start thinking about how they want to rebuild their town during the clean-up stage. To assist with morale and good mental health, a positive vision for the future should be considered and start being established at this stage.
“In thinking about what (bushfire affected) communities can start thinking about now, I would say start thinking about that vision for the future straight away,” Simmonds advises. “When you’re cleaning up and you’re seeing what happened and the devastation, it’s human nature to think ‘if things looked like this, or if we had done this before, we probably wouldn’t have had this happen, or this house would have been saved or this street wouldn’t have been damaged.’ Remember those things and write them down somewhere because they’re going to be crucial to your vision moving forward. We weren’t starting with a blank canvas in the first master planning discussions we had in Grantham. We came to it with ideas.
For instance, when thinking about the dirt that needed to be moved to the quarry during the clean-up which couldn’t fit under the bridge, this spawned the idea that the town needed a second crossing. This was noted a few days into the clean-up and when the master planning started weeks later the idea was added.”
Following the clean-up stage the activity from recovery efforts in disaster affected towns starts to quieten. As media, emergency services and volunteers dissipate, residents are often left on their own for the first time in days or even weeks. It is therefore vital that leaders within these towns ensure that support is continued in the weeks and months following on from a disaster so that communities do not feel forgotten.
“Most of the time the community hasn’t yet had a chance to grieve or absorb what is going on,” Simmonds says. “They’re getting their meals cooked for them, the community is all together meeting and talking, there’s mental health support, shoulders to cry on. In a lot of ways it’s a real positive time straight after the disaster. It gets a lot harder in the weeks and months afterwards, that’s when all the help starts to go away and people return to their normal lives. Once everyone leaves and the adrenaline has gone out of the community you’re left with questions like ‘what am I going to do now?’ and ‘do I want to stay here?’ Straight after a disaster everyone stands up and says ‘we’re not going anywhere, we’re going to stay and beat this thing, this is my home,’ but that story changes in the months afterwards when they don’t see a future. They develop mental health problems like drinking or even suicide.”
It was the will to avoid these mental health issues within the community of Grantham that drove Simmonds to deliver a plan to keep the community safe from future flood events. In order to execute the plan, collaboration with the community was paramount. After taking copious notes during the clean-up stage, masterplan meetings were created to involve not just leadership and contractors but the wider community as well. Residents were invited to have their say for the future vision of the town.
“The first point is, unless you bring the community on the journey you’re going to lose. Every opportunity you have to communicate with the community in a positive way you take,” Simmonds says.