How well do you and your neighbours know each other?
In the season of fires and floods, this is an important question, as research shows that well-connected communities do better at responding to and coping with disasters, according to public health researcher Professor Penny Hawe.
In the article below, she explains why social capital is especially important in times of disaster.
This article was first published in the December 2011 edition of Insight, published by the Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) with the theme, Emergency Management: Trauma and Resilience. It can be downloaded here: http://vcoss.org.au/pubs/insight_issues/issue_5.htm
Resilience: finding the right ingredients
Penny Hawe writes:
The day before I was due to pick up two dozen cupcakes from the bakery in Lorne, there was a message on my phone asking what kind of passionfruit icing I wanted.
The butter cream swirly type or the hard shiny fondant?
I took a note of the name of the caller and phoned back. The swirly type please.
The next day 24 little works of art were stacked up into three boxes waiting for me. As the baker’s daughter and I carried them to my car, I said:
“You’re Cleo, right?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Yes, I knew you, but I didn’t know your name. Hi.”
I now know 23 people in Lorne by name to say ‘hello’. I know some people well enough to stop and chat. Two and a half years ago I would not have known any of them.
Nor would I have appreciated the significance of this.
But I now know how my connections with people in my coastal town could save my life. Although that is not my reason for buying cupcakes.
In February 2011 my husband and I returned to Australia after ten years of living in Canada. Our former holiday home in Lorne is now our permanent residence.
Like an episode of SeaChange we are shaping a new life in a new community – pulling out weeds with Lorne Care, dragging our labrador to dog obedience class, taking our turn on the roster for the historical society.
Two years earlier, on Black Saturday, we were also in Lorne. At that time we were holidaymakers swapping minus 25 degree Celsius temperatures in Canada for the blistering dry, windy, 40-plus heat that swept Victoria that day.
Many of the long-term residents were probably thinking of the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires. That was when a spark from a sawmill in Deans Marsh started a fire that was burning houses in Lorne within 15 minutes. On Black Saturday 2009 a cool change breezed into Lorne by the late afternoon. Relief was coupled with sickening guilt, knowing that this time other communities had copped it instead.
Reviewing the evidence
Two days later, on my way back to Canada, I got the request from the Victorian Department of Health to put together a review of the evidence and set of recommendations that would help Victoria rebuild the fire-affected communities around Kinglake.1
So for the next two months, while the temperature in Calgary gradually rose to a balmy minus 15, I immersed myself in the international evidence on best ways to help rebuild the social fabric of communities that have been burnt to a cinder.
I learned a lot.
First up though, I believe we have to pause and admire the policy makers in the Victorian Department of Health. When politicians would have been breathing down their necks, they had the steady nerve to think, ‘Hang on, there must be right ways and wrong ways of going about community rebuilding and betterment. Let’s find out.’
Sure enough, for a start, there was evidence on what not to do. For years ‘psychological debriefing’ had been used after disaster events until some canny research showed that it actually did more harm than good.2,3
It was also evident that many traditional practices in aiding community recovery were largely unevaluated. Much money had been thrown at disaster recovery, but not enough people were figuring out what strategies worked best.
On top of that it was clear that the Victorian Heath Department’s interest in seeking the evidence to foster a strong, community-led recovery was not wacky or out of order at all. It was in keeping with what the Australasian Journal of Disaster Management had been calling for since 1997.4
But the cries were largely ignored, perhaps, since the call for involving communities in all aspects of decision-making had been repeated everywhere. Even as late as the Canberra bushfires in 2003, some government and community agencies were unaware or forgetful that playing a personal role in community reconstruction is an important part of community healing.5
Social capital is crucial
But the highlight for me – and you must forgive me for being an academic, but I do experience ‘highlights’ just from reading stuff – was the work by the Disaster Research Centre at the University of Delaware.
They showed how people’s social capital explained the well-known differential impact of disasters.6
People who live alone get left under buildings. People with friends and relatives know that they are missing and where to look. People on their own don’t seek help about symptoms experienced in the aftermath. People with family get nagged into it. People evacuate early when they feel obliged to act in ways that will reduce threat to others. People on their own wait.
Even warning messages broadcast on public radio or television are mediated through social networks. Communication processing involves hearing a message, understanding, believing, personalising and then responding. What processes all of this for us is other people. We hear and interpret through them.
This explains why the newly arrived, less connected, ‘tree change’ residents in the Tasmania bushfires in 2006 had lower preparedness and worse outcomes.7
They are like the extra nine or ten thousand people who can swell the population of Lorne in January, outnumbering the permanent residents ten to one. They are potential babes in the wood, when it comes to appreciating the gravity of a warning message.
So that’s why I am thinking about who I know in Lorne this summer. The Country Fire Authority wants people across the state to do fire plans, as residents or as possible travellers on high fire danger days.
I want to discuss my fire plan with my new neighbours, friends and acquaintances. I will be wiser for it and by knowing each other’s plans, we can back each other up.
It follows from this that any initiatives that build connections between people in fire vulnerable areas could be thought of as mediators of disaster impact and accorded appropriate respect. Arts projects. Sports projects. Environment projects. The people you meet when you band together to fight off development of the foreshore.
Knowing names and making connections should be viewed as a success indicator for such ventures – alongside the sculptures erected, events held and community gardens planted.
Of course I am acutely aware that in an emergency, among my neighbours, there are those who can drive fire trucks, those who can make fire breaks and those who can deal with fallen power lines.
I, on the other hand, stand out somewhat lamely as a person who can do a literature review. I can’t see myself being called on too often for that.
But we enjoy living here and we are being made welcome. And that, in a place as beautiful as Lorne, is like the icing on the cake.
• Professor Penelope Hawe is the founder of the Population Health Intervention Research Centre at the University of Calgary, Canada, where she continues to work part-time, mostly by telecommuting. She is the author of Community recovery after the February 2009 bushfires: A rapid review, an evidence checkreview brokered by the Sax Institute for the Victorian Department of Health in 2009.
1. Hawe P, Community recovery after the February 2009 bushfires: A rapid review,
An evidence check review brokered by the Sax Institute for the Public Health Branch, Victorian Government, Department of Health, 2009, available at http://www.health.vic.gov.au/healthpromotion/downloads/bushfire_rapid_review.pdf
2. Raphael B, Wilson JP Eds, Psychological Debriefing: Theory, Practice and Evidence, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
3. Forbes D, Creamer M, Phelps A, Bryant R, McFarlane A, Devilly G, et al, ‘Australian guidelines for the treatment of adults with acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 2007, vol. 41, no. 8, pp. 637-48.
4. Paton D, ‘Disaster and trauma studies: developing an Australasian perspective’.Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, 1997, vol. 1.
5. Camilleri P, Healy C, Macdonald E, Nicholls S, Sykes J, Winkworth G, & Woodward M, Recovering from the 2003 Canberra Bushfires. A Work in Progress, Report prepared for Emergency Management Australia, Australian Catholic University, 2007.
6. Dynes RR, ‘Social capital: Dealing with community emergencies’, Homeland Security Affairs, 2006, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 1-26.
7. Prior T & Paton D, ‘Understanding the context: The value of community engagement in bushfire risk communication and education: Observations following the East Coast Tasmania bushfires of December 2006’,
Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, 2008, vol. 2.
Previously at Croakey from Penny Hawe: Plans for a course on communicating the stories of public and population health