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Community spirit, assistance and support are key ingredients to keep communities buoyant throughout a recovery. There is no 'one size fits all' method for social and personal recovery after an emergency and a wide-ranging approach is needed to ensure people feel safe, secure and supported throughout all recovery stages.
The diverse needs of individuals and families directly and indirectly affected by the fires demanded a wide-ranging approach to deliver adequate social and personal support in the weeks and months following the fires. Staff involved in delivering these services were absolutely committed to meeting this demand, and widespread feedback is that they were very successful in doing so.
During November 2013 a representative sample of community members in the fire-affected areas were asked via a telephone survey what worked well for them, and what they thought could have been done differently throughout the recovery. The most common response when asked what worked well was community spirit, assistance and support, and almost half of the respondents could not think of any aspects of the bushfire recovery process that could have been better. This provides a clear indication of general satisfaction that the wide-ranging recovery needs of the broader community were met (refer Appendix 3 for a summary of survey results).
Support provided at the DISH was particularly well-received by many within the community because of its accessibility and its stable, inviting environment. It was a friendly 'go to' centre, with a range of dedicated staff to provide counselling, answer queries or broker relationships with other service providers. In conjunction with other providers, local and further afield, most issues or queries that arose were able to be quickly resolved. Similar assistance was provided until May 2013 at Sorell and Murdunna.
Feedback also shows that personal recovery was greatly enhanced by helping the community to understand what to expect during the different emotional and physical stages during their personal recovery journey – most importantly that 'normal' means different things to each individual. The many forms of communication used to engage different parts of the community at different times, such as Recovery News, fact sheets and the DVD from Dr Rob Gordon, supported this process by providing messages of hope and restoration, and ways for individuals and communities to establish their 'new normal'. These resources were made available via the Recovery website.
Events, activities and gatherings – particularly those that involved food and refreshments – brought people together and enabled informal conversation and relationship building. Feedback shows that the early establishment and regularity of events, such as the fortnightly barbeques at Murdunna, were highly valued with the lasting impact of strengthened friendships within the community.
Acknowledgement of the needs of other members of community spurred community-driven ideas such as the Winter Woodchop and Dad's Army, which provided ways to usefully engage men and address recovery needs within the community. Similarly, youth programs, local craft and environmental groups engaged other members of the community with activities suited to their needs and preferences.
The events initiated by the community were viewed as the most successful and government support, where needed, included provision of financial, promotional and organisational assistance. These events served to foster community spirit, build local capacity and promote community resilience.
Feedback from the review suggests that a single client database system such as Major Incident Support System (MISS) has potential to be a very useful system if it is developed and planned in advance, with concern for client confidentiality and informed consent, and only if it is adequately resourced to be ready at the time of the emergency. Attempting to implement this new and untested system during the period of most intense activity was not ideal.
It will require resourcing for MISS to be kept current and ready to be rolled out in a disaster – including a System Administrator who can manage the system and make modifications as required, as well as an ongoing commitment to training and support for the staff and organisations that will provide services to affected individuals in the case of a disaster.
A clear call for a 'single registration process' was received by those affected by the fires and echoed by service providers working within the community. Enabling clients to register basic information, including the degree of impact from the disaster, would eliminate the need for them to revisit the trauma by repeatedly telling their story.This registration process would ideally be catered for by the MISS. An alternative or additional suggestion to improve this process includes utilising Red Cross to enhance their registration process so they can also collect baseline information needed by government agencies for funding and other purposes such as the clean-up process. This way, clients would only need to register this information once, thereby streamlining all future information transactions.
A central client management database would also help to reduce duplication of services. A particular concern frequently raised by members of the community was the intrusion of constant doorknocking. Others wanted more contact; for some members of the community, having someone knock on their door was the only contact they received. A central database recording individual contact, by whom, and visiting preferences would reduce angst and enhance the ability to meet the needs of those who are hard to reach. Again, this function would ideally be covered by the MISS.
The local presence of staff and social workers at the recovery hubs complemented a range of other community organisations such as the Neighbourhood House, local churches and other groups across the affected region. Together, these organisations were able to support different members with varying needs within the community. Friction between the various organisations has emerged on occasions and is a clear indicator that sensitivity must be exercised, particularly when implementing new services where providers are already operating similar activities.
A common sentiment was that the 'transition to long-term recovery' begins from day one and external resources should first and foremost support and strengthen local capacity. Only then should they fill identified gaps, with exit strategies managed and effectively communicated. Feedback through the review provides a clear message that more time and effort should have been dedicated to defining roles and responsibilities, building key relationships and working on these strategies with the Neighbourhood House, among others.
Additionally, a strong message was that prolonged presence in a community must be managed carefully to meet needs without creating a dependency.
A host of services and assistance such as business, financial, legal and rebuilding support was provided at the hubs and other local centres. This meant that services were convenient for people to access advice or assistance, and many comments were received to reflect the importance of this in reducing the stress related to seeking such help independently.
Those who delivered recovery services found that the greatest success occurred when they built on existing relationships or strengthened the services already familiar to the community. For those stakeholders that did not have pre-existing relationships within the community, such partnerships enabled them to leverage known networks to quickly establish trust among locals.
More formal partnerships on committees such as the Red Cross Distribution Committee, Monetary Donations Sub- Committee and the Donated Goods Sub-Committee served to strengthen relationships among stakeholders and provide transparency and balanced guidance on some very complex issues. Although the activity of these committees was low profile, over the last year the community benefited greatly from their work. The members of these groups have been unanimous in the view that the collaborative approach has greatly assisted with the delivery of their programs and brought a much higher level of integration than would otherwise have been achieved.
The overwhelming display of goodwill by way of donations to those affected by the 2013 bushfires in Tasmania was testament to strong media coverage and other forms of communication that spread the news of the devastating effect on the fire-ravaged communities. Money and goods quickly flooded in, even from international donors.
While the scale of goodwill was greatly appreciated by recipients, dealing with the sheer volume of unsolicited donations of second-hand clothing and goods created significant extra work for local people and took the time and focus of service providers (who could have been dealing with other essential recovery tasks). It was found that large quantities of donated goods can have a negative impact on local businesses and delay economic recovery.
"Give money, not goods – please!"
A key learning is the need to send out a strong, clear message to the public that the most effective way to help is to give money, not goods. This gives recipients flexibility and choice, promotes self-directed recovery and more accurately targets need. It also stimulates local economies.
However, it is acknowledged that many people wish to respond to an emergency through giving and not all are in a position to give money. Therefore, clear and well understood mechanisms to deal with material donations are imperative. As a result of the lessons learnt, new Tasmanian guidelines for managing donated goods are currently being developed.
For many fundraisers tax deductibility was not a concern, for example those providing gold coin or larger donations at benefit concerts or other fundraising events. For others, tax deductibility is an important incentive when choosing a charitable channel for their donations, many of whom chose to donate through the Red Cross Appeal.
The tight legislative constraints of registered appeal funds shaped the distribution of funds, and some donors and community members expressed thoughts about who they felt should be entitled to funding. For example, it was clear that many people struggled to accept the reasoning behind the ineligibility of fire-affected shack owners and businesses that were not entitled to receive funding from the Appeal. In terms of managing expectations of both donors and recipients, feedback suggests that communicating clear options for giving early and widely would help, particularly in terms of outlining tax deductibility and how each fund can be used.
The work of the Monetary Donations Sub-Committee was invaluable for coordinating assistance from other charitable Non-Government Oorganisations (NGOs) to those households and individuals whose needs exceeded what was able to be provided through the Appeal funding. The work of this Sub-Committee continues, with approximately 15 households receiving a variety of levels of assistance in the early months of 2014.
The importance of robust methodology for the distribution of monetary donations could not be more highly emphasised. The Appeal Distribution Committee spent considerable time taking into account the diversity of needs raised by the community. A comment received during the review was that "equity wise, the methodology used for the final round of distribution could be described as a first class example of applied economics". This valuable resource is under consideration by the Red Cross for use in future disaster situations across the nation.
Housing Tasmania housed many of those who had lost their homes in temporary accommodation and this appeared to have worked well for many. All of the people that required this solution were able to access it, and short-term arrangements were extended in many cases, to ensure that people using this option were not pressured to move on at the end of their initial lease period.
For some people after a disaster, it is important to stay on their land and in their communities, and their proximity to the area can contribute to overall community recovery. There were a number of people affected by the fire that made this decision, and the review identified that the needs of these people should be assessed as a priority, particularly before the winter months set in. Although this certainly did occur in the Sorell/Tasman area, more immediate consideration could perhaps be given to such people to ensure that their basic needs are met, just as those of people who decide to move away.
As an example, the review identified that although Lions Tasmania's donation of laundry and ablutions facilities was greatly appreciated, the complexity of approvals and planning meant that this excellent initiative was delayed considerably. Anticipating this complexity and developing ways of dealing with it may have helped establish the facilities more quickly, and should be considered if they are needed in the future.