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After the Deluge – some reflections on more than twenty years of disaster management

We may not be able to control where and when a natural disaster strikes but we can control the way in which we respond to them. These responses can make a significant difference to the impact of the disaster on our society and also provide valuable learning opportunities for future disaster management and public health initiatives.

Associate Professor Tom Keating has been closely involved in the management of recovery from the three of the largest natural disasters to befall the State of Victoria. In 1983 he was given the responsibility of managing the operational aspects of the State’s recovery from the Ash Wednesday bushfires. In 1993, as regional Director of the Hume Region, he was responsible for managing recovery from the largest flooding disaster to have affected the State. In 2003, in a similar position, he was called upon to manage recovery from the North Eastern, and largest component of the Alpine bushfires.

In the following Croakey longread he reflects on these events and discusses what we have learnt about managing disasters from them. In particular, he analyses how our response to disasters is informed by our sense of ‘community’ and what this means for the future of disaster management and public health more broadly.

Tom Keating writes:

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday was the first and most significant disaster event to occur in Victoria (and indeed south-eastern Australia) in the post Cyclone Tracy era. It occurred almost ten years after Tracy, but the shadow of that earlier catastrophic event hung over its management. The experience of Ash Wednesday, and the difficulties in its management, was to shape much of what came afterwards in recovery management in the State.

It was an event of enormous proportions in which 75 people died, 2200 homes were destroyed and over four thousand people were dislocated. 359,000 hectares were burned. It occurred immediately after a terrible drought and at the end of a long hot summer. It left a blackened scar on the landscape which turned to heartbreaking mire when the autumn and winter rains soon followed.

It was in social terms, in fact three, if not four events; a rural fire in the south-west of the State, a forest fire affecting rural and tourist communities on the Otway peninsular, and two urban fringe fires, one in the relatively affluent Macedon ranges, and the other, in the eastern suburban fringe and semi-rural villages of the Dandenong ranges.

One of the important lessons that we learned at the time, was that the experiences that people have in disaster situations, varies extraordinarily depending on their prior circumstances, their resources, both personal and social. Each of these “communities” had very different experiences, and we had to learn over time to respond much more flexibly than we expected to that variability.

I say that the shadow of Tracy hung over the administration of recovery following Ash Wednesday. This was the most significant mass emergency event in the memory of those responsible. But of course, it was a very different event. It occurred in a relatively isolated and relatively unpopulated part of the country. Its civil administration was directly accountable to the Commonwealth government. Its recovery management was dominated as with the Katrina disaster in the US, by the threat of a public health disaster – a potable water supply could not be guaranteed.

The bulk of the (white) population was evacuated, and the majority never returned. Its circumstances called for a militarily led management, and of course this is what happened, under the leadership of Major General Stretton. But its lessons for recovery were not great (since the bulk of the population was removed), or were not well understood. Nevertheless its assumptions of military-like command management techniques, and orderly phased transfer from response to recovery persisted.

The administration of recovery following Ash Wednesday was itself another disaster, though one from which much was learned. The conceptual underpinning was flawed. It was assumed that recovery was a discrete phase, which commenced following response. It was assumed that resources and activity could be directed at will.

The Disaster Welfare Plan allocated responsibility to agencies (for instance, the Seventh Day Adventist Church was to be responsible for housing) without any regard for capacity to deliver. Relationships between statutory agencies were poor or non-existent as were communication channels between agencies.

A recently elected government was keen to be seen to be doing things, but lacked a policy framework to guide its actions. It ended up making decisions on the run, often announcing new assistance measures on the steps of Parliament, immediately following Cabinet meetings. and before there was a mechanism in place to deliver on them.

The administration was vested in a branch of the Premier’s Department, with no administrative infrastructure or systems. Applications for assistance were taken with poor attention to basic identifying and contact information and filed chronologically rather than by location or name of applicant. By the time application numbers got to 4,000, there was no way a specific file could be located.

Most significantly, it was assumed that this would be over quickly. The problem would be dealt with and everyone would be able to go back to his or her normal job.

The framework for managing recovery from Ash Wednesday was put together on the Saturday following the fires. While it was constantly trying to catch up, that framework has formed the basis of the Victorian model of recovery management, which has subsequently been taught through EMA training courses and has become the standard model in this country, and increasingly in others.

It may sound pedestrian now when this sort of thinking has become incorporated into the way we think about disaster management, but at the time it was revolutionary and challenging for those in central organisations and command agencies. It took as its beginning point that effected people should have a powerful role in determining how recovery was managed; that local organisation should be established around local government as the key coordinative mechanism; and that the resources of the State and other agencies should be brought in behind local organisation, rather than supplanting it.

We learnt many other things through 1983, which have become essential aspects of how Victoria manages emergency recovery. We were able to persuade decision makers that recovery was not a phase which followed response but was integrally related to and co-terminus with it. Decisions made during response activities have major implications for the way people recover.

We learnt that coordination needed to take place regionally and locally, and that the role of central management needed to be to support and resource local managers. We learnt that public assistance must be clearly codified, understood by all and not changed during the management of any event and that the goodwill of donors can be put at risk where the distribution of assistance is not seen as fair and reasonable. And we learnt that the way assistance is given must reinforce the capacity, independence and dignity of people affected.

Giving bicycles to children at Christmas is a very bad idea however well intentioned. Making it possible for parents to give bicycles to their children is a good one. John Hill designed and implemented the first comprehensive outreach personal services program, which involved home visiting everyone affected.

We put in place the first Community Development Officer program, which gave eyes and ears to recovery and arms and legs to local communities. By the end, while nobody was satisfied that what was done was good enough, recovery management in Victoria and Australia was irrevocably changed

October ’93 Floods

On the night of 3 October 1993 eight inches of rain fell in a four-hour period on the Black Range above Myrtleford. The resultant flood overwhelmed the Broken, the Goulburn and the Ovens and King systems. Overnight Benalla was flooded and twenty bridges over the Ovens and King and tributaries were destroyed.

Over subsequent days, flood waters moved towards Wangaratta and Shepparton. Wangaratta was narrowly reprieved by its levies and Shepparton also escaped flooding, though at the expense of farmers and orchardists to the east and north. Approximately a fifth of the State and much of Hume Region was under water at some time. It was the fourth largest natural disaster by area and by lost resources, in the recorded history of the country.

A distinguishing feature of this event was its breadth and diversity. There were in fact seven separate disasters which varied according to topography, the economy and means of production of the area, and the speed with which the floodwaters hit.

Benalla, which was flooded overnight, had a very different experience from that of Nathalia, whose farmers watched as the waters crept across the country but destroyed their pastures just as effectively. Their pastures were still under water eight weeks later. Euroa and Violet Town’s disaster was a flash flood, which caused a large amount of damage in a short period.

The Ovens Valley had a violent experience with great damage done to infrastructure and with some communities isolated for days. A distinguishing feature was the variable capacity and commitment of Local Authorities to dealing with the issues their people faced.

Benalla was approached to establish a coordinating committee on the first morning it was possible to get into the town. It had the committee established and was actively managing recovery that evening. It took Shepparton two weeks to employ the community development officers for which funding was provided, and we never really felt that the city was in control.

A flood is a very particular sort of disaster event. Its impact is insidious and pervasive, but lacks the visual persistence that enables those not immediately affected to comprehend. Floodwaters recede, and for many observers the problem is resolved.

The images are not as terrifying as those of wildfire and once the water is gone; there is not a blackened scar on the landscape to remind the public of the disaster. But the impacts can be far reaching. The experience for many, particularly the elderly, during the ’93 floods, was traumatic. The smell of the floodwaters stayed for many weeks after the waters subsided, as a continuing reinforcement of that trauma.

Some of our experienced psychiatric staff compared the experience they had of dealing for up to twelve hours a day with extremely stressed people, with some of the most intensive work they had done in psychiatric institutions. For some, there was anger and frustration at the failure of those outside to appreciate the degree of their distress.

During the Christmas following the floods, there were major bushfires, which threatened Sydney. In fact a relatively small number of permanent residences were damaged and most of these were insured, but the public outpouring was substantial. For people in Benalla, their’s became the forgotten disaster.

Financial losses were significant. We distributed more than $7m in assistance as emergency grants, temporary living assistance and for replacement of essential items. We had over 150 staff in the field for three months to make this and personal support possible.

But this of course did not come close to addressing the financial losses involved. Over time, the Benalla Recovery Committee transformed into the Benalla Flood Action Committee which battled for a number of years, with some success, with insurance companies to get reasonable outcomes for those effected.

You could not then insure for flood, and so the debate becomes whether the damage was in fact caused by floodwaters, by storm damage, or by overflow from municipal drains. For rural communities, the removal of subsidies for the replacement of fencing and the transport of stock and fodder became powerful symbols of their belief that government was only interested in those in cities and towns.

The flood disaster reinforced the importance of the role of community development officers. On this occasion, because of their number and distribution, we employed a person to work beside them to provide coordination, training and support, and also, to enable them to record and report on their experiences.

These reports became an invaluable record of the learnings from the event. We found during this event however, a need for a resource which was not previously understood. On the weekend after the flood a massed public meeting at the steps of the Benalla Municipal Offices expressed extreme anger at what was seen as the failure of the Victoria Police to provide adequate warning, and the perceived preferential treatment of some with respect to warnings.

Over the following week, approximately 80 neighbourhood meetings were conducted by trained debriefers, led by Rob Gordon, Ruth Wraith and John Hill, which enabled the communication of important information about the night of the floods, and to genuinely have their say and be heard about the things which were of concern to them. Following this, similar community meeting took place across the region.

The floods provided a significant logistical challenge for recovery, especially with respect to cleanup. Exhausted people immediately affected by the floods were in need of volunteer assistance to make good their properties, and the VFF was very good at facilitating this.

But it was very unreliable for very good reasons. People had their own properties to tend and their own families to care for. The extent of the floods meant that volunteers needed to come from outside the region, often travelling for much of a day to get here. Frequently promised numbers did not arrive, frustrating the plans of organisers and property owners.

One of the other important lessons from the floods experience was concerned with the capacity of people affected by disasters to process information. In Benalla, while there were three letter drops to all households in the first week, advising people about assistance available and what to do about flood affected carpets, many complained that they did not receive this information.

It is not surprising that people who are traumatised do not read, and if they do, do not retain much of what they read. We need to become more sophisticated about the way we convey information, with an emphasis upon direct communication.

Finally, we witnessed with the ’93 floods, some important changes in the structure of rural social organisation. We watched as people affected by the disaster sought solace and support not from the traditionally potent social networks, such as the churches, but from emergent networks, notably associated with producer organisations. The VFF, the Tobacco and Hops Growers Association, the United Dairy farmers of Victoria, provided some of the most useful and sought after advice and support for people affected.

Alpine Bushfires 2003

The Alpine bushfires were distinguished principally by the length of time that they burned. The fires were caused by lightning strikes which fired the tinder dry bushland, which had suffered the worst drought in one hundred years.

The fires burned for eight weeks and destroyed 1.2m hectares. They required the deployment of large numbers of fire-fighters and support staff, and did substantial damage to tourism and farming enterprises. One fire came within five kilometres of the major urban centre of Wodonga and many small villages surrounding Bright were repeatedly placed on high alert. The fires created significant public health risks associated with smoke inhalation and water quality.

One of the important aspects of this event from a recovery perspective was that it compounded the effects of one of the worst droughts that the State has experienced. The fires hit communities, which had had their resources, physical, emotional and financial, drained. This, probably more than any other factor, determined the extent to which individuals and communities were able to deal with the disaster experience.

This event saw the establishment for the first time of a formal regional coordination mechanism for recovery. This was based upon the standing Hume Regional Recovery Management Committee, which had hitherto had a planning and development role. Given an operational role, and augmented with additional members, it provided the basis of coordination throughout the life of the event and recovery.

It included the three Local Government Authorities affected by the fires, as well as all the relevant government departments, statutory authorities and non-government agencies. It took a genuinely whole of government approach, dealing as much with natural resources, primary industry, economic development and infrastructure issues, as it did human services issues. This was one of the most remarkably successful aspects of the management of the disaster.

The event also saw the introduction of an extremely successful initiative by the Country Fire Authority. Throughout the period in which the fires were burning, and when many smaller communities were experiencing threat, the CFA conducted locally based briefings, which ensured that people knew exactly what was happening. What we learned from this is that information before the fact is a powerful recovery tool. One of the ways in which disaster events traumatise people is that they induce a feeling of powerlessness.

People experience a sense of defencelessness in the face of the elements. Information in this instance is literally power. Provided with accurate information about what is happening and their choices, people feel more in control. We experienced lower levels of stress and continuing psychological trauma associated with this event than expected, despite the repeated crises that some communities experienced.

I believe that the CFA initiative was at least partly responsible for this. The obverse of this was that there was some trauma experienced as a result of the fact that many people did not understand the changed approach being taken to fire management. Contemporary approaches place an emphasis upon preserving assets and life rather than aggressive firefighting strategies. There was deep resentment in some communities, which persists to this day, that the fire services did not seek to extinguish fires that subsequently burnt farmland.

Timely decision making by government was a critical issue. There was a very rapid response to the stresses experienced particularly in the Alpine Shire as a result of reduced tourism, prompted by a well-organised and articulate business lobby. The complex issues of private and commercial risk as against public responsibility however, made it more difficult to resolve the important issues for farmers.

And the fires raised some very important issues for the protection and management of health systems. There were at times, difficulties in getting an appreciation by some of the public health hazards being dealt with. Also, at one point there were three hospitals caring for mainly elderly people, in the path of fires.

There were not systems in place to manage evacuations and demand transfer between health providers, identify available bed capacity and manage personnel and skills requirements should this be necessary. This realisation has prompted some important work, which has proceeded within the Department of Human Services.

These experiences, taken together, raise a number of questions, particularly with respect to three areas; the construct of ‘community’ and its implications for social administration; the pre-eminence of public health concerns in all their guises; and the particular challenges associated with delivering joined-up or ‘whole of government’ responses.

Community

A consequence of adopting the Victorian model has been the reification of the concept of community. We talk of ‘community management” and establish “community committees” to guide recovery. We talk and try to act as though there is entity out there that we might be dealing with in a meaningful way.

We develop intervention strategies based upon bogus or outdated sociology, which argues that there are abiding social connections, which are somehow sundered in the experience of disaster, and it is our task to restore them.

To question the primacy of ‘community’ is to risk being pilloried as lacking a responsible beginning point, but we need to understand that an unquestioning and unsophisticated application of the concept leads us into poor recovery and poor social administration practice. The assumption of community brings with it an assumption of homogeneity, an assumption that there is a community perspective that can be obtained if only we use the right method or have the right orientation. It leads to the assumption of some ideal social state that that can be created or restored.

But social life is `more complex than that. The reality is that there are complex patterns of social interaction between individuals and groups, and that associations are formed across multiple and competing domains. People associate by location, by affiliation and by interest. And those associations change over time and by interest.

What we usually mean when we talk of community, is the community of the powerful. We look to those who are most often seen as representing the interests of the majority – the local government representatives, business people, and ministers of religion.

With the best of intentions, these people cannot represent the interests, the understandings and the aspirations of the diverse range of people who are affected by disasters. They do not understand, much less represent the unemployed koori young person, the elderly bed bound person or the single parent struggling in rented accommodation.

So what can we usefully retain from our ‘community’ discourse. ‘Community’ is a shorthand and is a heuristic concept in the sense of inviting us to attend in a particular way. It is shorthand firstly for ‘not government’. We understand that while government is able to do much, there is much that it cannot do. At least some of what it cannot do as well as less formal means of organising is to respond to the particularity of local concerns.

Government must aggregate in order to maintain public accountability, and is inevitably big and cumbersome. Community is in this sense a shorthand for local, small scale and responsive, in a way that governments find it hard to be. But we mean something less negative also. In our use of the language of community we are wanting to assert at least two other things.

We want to argue that people should be, or need to be, in charge of their own recovery. That the quality of decision making will be better where those who are affected by decisions are involved in taking them. We argue that people have a right to participate in critical decisions that impact them. Further, we are asserting that there is a therapeutic value in the processes of citizen participation; that the processes by which people are engaged in decision-making are part of the restorative processes of social relationships.

So where does this leave our commitment to community management of recovery? I would argue that we can retain the commitment to the local, the participatory and the therapeutic, without having to accept the muddled romanticism of the language of community. To do so however will require that we become more rigorous not just with language, but also in addressing the complexities that that language masks.

We need to develop much more aggressively democratic approaches which engage the broader range of affected people and recognise the diversity of interests that are always present within collectives of people, including an understanding that people’s interests and preferences will vary over time.

Public Health

Public Health as an approach and as a service response is one of the most overlooked and yet most vital aspects of disaster recovery. We need only to look at the situation in the areas affected by Cyclones Katrina and Rita to see the potential impact of a major public health threat. Polluted water breeds disease. Poor hygiene can be a greater cause of mortality and morbidity than an initial disaster event.

In each of the events to which I have referred, there has been a significant public health threat which has been belatedly identified and which has provoked a reactive response. In the case of Ash Wednesday, this was a mental health threat. No one anticipated the length of time it would take to restore a degree of normalcy to people’s lives, or the level of generalised stress that this would entail, particularly for children.

In the case of the ’93 floods, we picked up late, and from a dropped comment from the Municipal CEO that there was a break in the sewer line that threatened the Benalla water supply, and that the municipal environmental health officer was on leave. During the 2001 alpine bushfires, it took us more than a week to put in place effective health alerts and advice concerning the dangers of sustained exposure to smoke.

The deposit of ash toxics within the watercourses brought to light the high level of unregulated drawing of water for private consumption from rivers and streams. It also posed a major problem for the supply of clean water to urban centres, with a number of water purification systems threatened, and Wangaratta City’s system failing on one day.

Old Public Health is essentially about hazard identification and management. Disasters change the balance within the natural and human environments. That means that we need, as a matter of course, to re-assess the threats to human health and wellbeing posed by the new circumstances. We do this in a reactive and idiosyncratic way.

It would be my intention in the case of any future significant disaster event, to move my public health staff off line (to the degree that this is possible, given the possibility that actual public health threats may be experienced), and require them to undertake a comprehensive public health risk analysis. We cannot afford to be surprised by a major outbreak of disease amongst an already vulnerable or displaced population.

But public health methodologies go further than this. Public Health is not just about hazard identification, surveillance and risk mitigation. It also involves an analysis of populations and their vulnerabilities. These also will change in the context of a disaster. We know that some population cohorts are more vulnerable in the event of a disaster.

We know that if we are faced with an influenza outbreak it will be the elderly and the very young who will be most vulnerable, and so we will put in place population based interventions which target our activities to them. Surely we should apply the same methodology to other events. We learned, for instance, from the ’93 floods that elderly people at home were particularly at risk. They were anxious about their personal possessions including memorabilia. They had less access that those more mobile to information and so were anxious about what they did not know. And they were more vulnerable following sudden moves.

We put in place an approach, which we have extended to all major events, whereby we immediately double the level of home care support available to users of HACC services. We know that it is important to provide security, comfort and support, and that this will avoid many problems into the future.

In order to put in place, proactive population based interventions, which will enhance the capacity of people to deal with the impact of disaster events; we need to know those populations intimately. Again, this is a task of the comprehensive public health assessment to which I referred, in conjunction with Local Government, which has that sort of knowledge. In order to deliver on this, we need to develop the methodology for local area population heath analysis, and we also need to develop a flexible approach to resource deployment, which recognises potential threat to health and wellbeing, as well as actual events requiring intervention.

Managing Whole of Government Responses

The coordinated response in the North East to the Alpine bushfires demonstrates what can be achieved in coordinating at a regional level, the activities of statutory agencies, local government, and non-government bodies.

There was an extraordinary level of good will, openness and an absence of territoriality, which meant that residents in the fire areas could be assured that agencies were working closely together and services and supports would be coordinated. It also demonstrates the limitations that exist, within a complex government environment, upon joined up activities.

A tension inevitably arose between the imperative to resolve issues in a timely manner, as locally as possible, and in a way that took into account the responsibilities of other agencies, and the functional responsibilities of individual organisations. The Secretary of the Department of Infrastructure, for instance, was clear that he was responsible for dealing with issues of water infrastructure, and called a state-wide forum of agencies to address these issues. He put in place, not unreasonable, state-wide strategies to meet his responsibilities, but which did not take account of regional coordination requirements or structures.

Other Departments, the more time that had passed since the disaster event, gradually started to put in place their own granting arrangements, again which bypassed the agreed coordination and administration arrangements which had been agreed locally. From a Local Government perspective, this was frustrating and time-wasting. They had invested energy in the regional arrangements in the belief that there might be one point of contact with the State government and that agencies would act in a coordinated way.

While many issues were effectively dealt with within the Regional Recovery Committee, in the end, the matters, which were of greatest significance, were ones, which required a policy response at a State level. The issues of subsidies for farm fencing, and the making good of fire breaks on private property were the most significant for local communities, but were not amenable to local resolution. The length of time that it took to resolve these issues and the level of anger and frustration that this generated locally had important implications for other aspects of recovery.

This is not to say that all aspects of disaster recovery could or should be devolved or managed regionally through coordinative mechanisms. There are some matters which have policy and financial implications which will inevitably be dealt with centrally.

The responsibilities of the Department of Human Services under the Emergency Management Act are concerned with the coordination of government activity and properly leave the functional responsibilities of other Departments intact. It is however to point out that there are tensions between the inevitable tendencies of agencies to line manage issues, and the requirement to coordinate activities between agencies, and the not unreasonable expectations of local and regional players that government will deliver a joined-up response to complex issues which effect communities in complex and interrelated ways.

There is, however, another and more serious way in which whole of government coordination is difficult and which has implications for the management of disasters. I give as an example the complexity of managing water. On one weekend (which in accordance with Murphy’s Law happened to be a long weekend) a thick slurry which had been deposited in the Ovens River moved down to Wangaratta and caused the city’s filtration system to fail.

This was clearly a water supply problem, but it was also an environmental problem and a health problem. Who was responsible for managing the complex issues involved? Was it the water retailer? The Catchment Management Authority? The Environmental Protection Agency? Local Government? The Department of Human Services? The Department of Sustainability and Environment? or the Department of Infrastructure? The answer is of course, all of the above. Which issues took priority? It was not clear. Which agency, if any, was finally responsible? Again it was unclear. In fact the issue was managed very effectively.

The water retailer, Goulburn Ovens Water, transported water from Benalla and restored the failed system. The collaborative arrangements which existed between agencies and which were nurtured in the previous weeks of recovery management enabled an effective multi-agency response. But that need not have been the case, and in any place other than the north-east it probably would not have. The fact is that the business of government is complex. It involves multiple and complex responsibilities which overlap and compete.

The same issue can be approached from multiple legitimate perspectives. We have done the easy stuff of joined up government. We have even done some of the hard stuff. We are now faced with some of the very hard stuff.

Tom Keating is Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales Faculty of Medicine
Albury Wodonga Rural Clinical School

This article was first published on LinkedIn

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