Too little, too late: Australia’s disaster response has been … a disaster | Australia news

Since Ruth Haggar lost her home in the New South Wales town of Quaama in the Black Summer bushfires more than two years ago, she has wanted a single, local source of help.

“You’ve got fire brain, you’re traumatized, you’re running on adrenaline, you’re filling out a bunch of paperwork, you’re running after this grant and that grant, you’re sitting in queues,” she says.

“One day, this charity is offering $500, then another is offering $1,000. And that took a toll. It seemed like for months we were chasing grant leads.”

She fears the same mistakes are now playing out in communities affected by the floods in northern NSW, where residents claim recovery efforts have been patchy, under-resourced, and too slow.

Lucy Wise, whose home was affected by the floods in Lismore, agrees.

“It has been a bureaucratic nightmare for a lot of people.”

The hall in Quaama, in the Bega valley in NSW, was converted into a community supply center for people affected by the bushfires. Photograph: Sean Davey/AAP

Labor in opposition was critical of the Coalition’s failure to spend any of the $4.8m Emergency Response Fund on disaster recovery or prevention three years after iits creation. Having now taken power, it will be in the firing line from communities up and down the east coast demanding a more urgent federal response.

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Those on the ground say the whole structure of recovery efforts needs to be rethought to get practical resources to people like Haggar and Wise more quickly.

‘Councils can’t do it alone.’

Two and a half years from Black Summer, the co-coordinator of the Cobargo relief center, Chris Walters, says it is clear that having a centralized recovery agency in Sydney or Canberra doesn’t work.

“Having one staff member on the ground isn’t enough,” she says. They need more people on the ground and working with people.”

Walters says the money flowing directly to bushfire survivors has been “woeful”, but it’s not just about handing out big chunks of money to build homes.

“It’s about the federal government helping the state and local governments to assist people on the ground so that individuals are being helped.”

Walters says part of the problem is that councils are “absolutely drowning in work”.

“They are doing all they can to help but have not gotten enough staff,” she says.

Janelle Saffin, the state Labor MP for Lismore, agrees that “councils cannot do it alone” and that flood-affected communities desperately need more boots on the ground helping people.

The flood-damaged kitchen of Lucy Wise’s Lismore home. Photograph: Lucy Wise/Courtesy of Lucy Wise/AFP/Getty Images

Shona Whitton, the national lead for emergency recoveries at Red Cross, says each disaster-affected area needs a designated community group to help government agencies understand the needs and build, at minimum, a five-year recovery plan with committed funding.

“Thinking about how to do [disaster recovery] better is a whole thing that people just don’t have time for because they’re so overwhelmed with work under how the current system is set up,” she says.

“There also needs to be an acknowledgment that these types of disasters have long-term impacts, and 12-24 months of funding is not long enough.”

“I think the challenge with the federal government at a local level is that in all states and territories, emergency management is different. So we need leadership from the federal government and consistency inequity of service delivery after disasters.”

These issues are front of mind for Kristy McBain, the new minister for regional development and the MP for Eden-Monaro, which spans several bushfire-affected communities.

“There was a missing element in understanding that there needed to be coordination between the three levels of government,” she says, adding that planning issues, in big part stemming from under-resourcing, need to be addressed.

Murray Watt, the new minister for emergency management, says the government’s Disaster Ready Fund, which will replace the Coalition’s Emergency Response Fund, will invest up to $200m a year in disaster mitigation projects such as flood levees, cyclone shelters, and bushfire evacuation centers.

Janelle Saffin, a Member of Lismore, says flood-affected communities need more boots on the ground. Photograph: Natalie Grono/AAP

Watt says he will also do “all in his power” to see that the recommendations from the royal commission into natural disaster responses are implemented, not all of which were supported by the previous government.

“Too often, we saw the former government refuse to plan or listen to the warnings as disasters approached and then abandoned disaster victims, blaming others for their slow response. This will change under the Albanese government,” he says.

A good investment

Those still struggling with the aftermath of repeated disasters say a better system cannot come soon enough.

David Allen, the owner of the Cobargo hotel, says putting the onus on bushfire survivors to navigate a confusing recovery system has disadvantaged older and less computer-literate people, resulting in many missing out on grants they were entitled to.

“Instead of [bushfire survivors] having to go the charity to try to get what they need, they could have that list where they go ‘right, this person needs X, Y, and Z, this other person needs this and that, let’s give them X, Y, and Z – because charity donations don’t match up with what people need.”

Cobargo hotel owner David Allen says confusing processes mean some people affected by disasters miss out on grants. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Haggar says Anglicare has launched a program to help bushfire survivors in her area with building advice in the past few weeks. She says this will be a huge help, as a tradie and supply shortages plague those trying to rebuild, but it should have been put in place two years ago.

“Some hands-on physical support early on would have given us a boost to commit the energy and feel encouraged and supported to go forward, and I believe many of us would be in houses now.”

In Lismore, Wise says what she wants is clarity on her options. She and her husband spent part of their super to raise their home above flood levels according to council guidelines, only to be flooded again.

Lucy Wise raised the home she shares with her partner and three-year-old son meters off the ground, but they have flooded again and lost everything. Photograph: Elise Derwin

She sees a land buyback or swap scheme as her best option, which requires politicians to act quickly.

“So we’re very dependent on policies by the government,” she says.

On Wednesday, the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, said he would support the relocation of residents in flood-prone areas of Lismore if the independent inquiry underway recommended it. Steph Cook, the NSW minister for flood recovery, said the government would respond to the inquiry “as quickly as practicable”.

Haggar says timely, practical support is also a good psychological and financial investment.

“Feeling supported would dramatically improve our mental health. We’re getting mental health counseling because no one will help us – if someone helped us, we wouldn’t need as much mental health counseling.”

Bella E. McMahon
I am a freelance writer who started blogging in college. I am fascinated by human nature, politics, culture, technology, and pop culture. In addition to my writing, I enjoy exploring new places, trying out new things, and engaging in conversations with new people. Some of my favorite hobbies are reading, playing music, making crafts, writing, traveling, and spending time with my family.