For Disaster Relief Organisers

A GREAT RELIEF

by Liz Tilley, Canberra

9 February 2009

As a survivor of the January 2003 firestorm in Canberra, my heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones, homes, pets, and a lifetime of memories in the tragic Victorian fires.

As I sit watching TV news coverage, with my heart racing and my body shaking slightly as I remember the fear, the flames, the heat, the smoke and the knowledge that I would probably not get out alive; I also remember in the days, weeks and months after the fires what support we needed and valued.

The victims of the Victorian fires are coping with the loss of homes, possession, pets and property as well as trying to cope with immense grief.

A great relief effort is one that is based on the experiences of previous disaster situations, and yet, after the Canberra bushfires, we were so often ‘re-inventing the wheel’.

I just can’t bear to see those victims in Victoria not benefit from what we learned in Canberra.

While the aid agencies will swing into action, and do what they do best, and the State and Federal government put their disaster planning into action, how can the Australian public, and the Victorian Relief Effort, help in the best way possible?

What the surviving victims need, both in terms of donations, and physical and emotional support comes will come in phases. Of course, the first weeks after the fire, in the immediate post trauma phase, these needs will be different from what they will need in six, 12 months or two years time.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my tips for a “great” relief:

Notes to Victorian Disaster Relief Organisers

Counselling

Don’t sit the counsellors in a room at the recovery centres where people have to go to them. These victims are in shock and running on adrenalin. The women will usually talk about it, the men won’t. Men seldom seek out emotional assistance or counselling. Often the men will hold it all inside and release it in anger or violence a few days, weeks, months or years down the track. Years on from the fires, women were saying that their husbands “didn’t talk about it” and were withdrawn or showing signs of depression.

Put the counsellors and social workers in the field. Get them to go and help the men sort through the burnt out remainders of their homes. Get them to go to the pubs and clubs where the men are congregating. Get them to be there when the bulldozers move in to flatten what little remains of people’s homes. Often people just want someone to listen and to tell them that what they are experiencing is ‘normal’ under the circumstances.

Get the social workers to be there to act as advocates when victims have to deal with public servants, banks, and government officials in the next few weeks. Some of the victims will have literally lost their identities – they will have no wallet, no identification, no bank details. They will have to deal with insurance companies and government agencies. People working in these institutions don’t have training as social workers, and often are under increased stress themselves. I can’t tell you the number of victims who were coping pretty well up until they had to deal with a bank or other institution who were either obstructive or unable to assist because ‘our computer system won’t let me’.

Buddy system

Our children’s school (Orana School for Rudolf Steiner Education) instituted a ‘buddy system’ for the families from school that lost their homes. This was a fantastic system that could be adapted for use in any disaster situation. Hundreds of people were phoning, dropping into our temporary accommodation and offering help, but it was so overwhelming. People kept asking “What do you need” and it was very hard to say “Everything”. Our buddy removed this stress so that when people asked “what do you need?” or “What can I do?”, we referred them to our buddy. She had a huge list and would determine if we needed towels, cutlery, an ironing board, a fridge—and let people chose what they wanted to donate or buy. My husband rented an empty house and then went up to Sydney to collect me and the three children. When we returned to Canberra four days later, we returned to a fully set-up house complete with beds, lounges, toys for the kids, bed linen, towels—to the level of detail of waste paper baskets, scissors in the drawers and pot plants. I find it hard to express our deep gratitude for this amazing coordination of assistance.

Women’s networks

As well as dealing with trauma, pain and grief, women have to look after the needs of their family. This can mean they put their own needs last.
My greatest sources of support and friendship was a small group of women bound by the fact that our children all attended the same school and we all lost our homes. We started meeting for coffee a few weeks after the fires and, six years on, we still meet regularly for lunch. We call ourselves The Singed (as in “slightly burnt”) Sisterhood.

I don’t know how I would have got through the last six years without these wonderful women who have now become close friends.

Getting women together in an informal way allows them to support each other and share their stories. In the months to comes, as the victims are spread across the State, they will need avenues in which to come together and discuss what they, and their families, are going through. There is enormous comfort in knowing you are not alone.

Communication

The victims of the fires will be spreading across the State, and in some cases interstate, to stay with relatives and friends. It is vital that all victims stay connected to the network of aid that will be coming their way in the following weeks, months and years.

While I know a database of victims is currently being compiled, it is imperative that this database is updated as victims move from temporary accommodation into rental accommodation and then decide to either rebuild, buy or rent indefinitely.

Wonderful companies will donate goods and services, or offer wholesale or discounted goods. In the next 12 months to two years, as victims decide to rebuild, buy another home or rent, they will need to access these.

People who move interstate will not have access to the assistance and counselling on offer – they need to be tracked and supported. A friend of mine really struggled as she moved to Sydney and did not have anyone to talk with who had gone through the experience, she also missed out on most of the donations, assistance and counselling available in the period after the fires.

Often, those that had immediate help, staying in fully-furnished homes, or with friends or family for extended periods, miss out on some assistance in the immediate phase because they don’t need it, however this puts them at a disadvantage further down the track in a few months time, when this accommodation ceases and they then have to begin again with nothing. The aid will need to be ongoing.

Not everyone will have access to a computer, certainly not in the first few weeks, or even months. Post information to people – mail can be forwarded or passed on.

Shopping centres. Everyone needs to shop – particularly if you’ve lost everything. Distribute newsletters updating victims and survivors on what is happening and what help they can access via shopping centres around the State. Libraries, government offices, community centres, cultural and religious centres can also distribute the newsletters.

These newsletters can also inform members of the public how they can help.

Mobile phone bills

Most of us faced enormous mobile phone bills after the fires. In the weeks and months after the fires, our mobiles were our lifeline—to friends, family, work, the insurance company, to everything. In the weeks after the fires, I used my mobile more than I ever have in my life. In the months after the fires, when we were already under huge stress, we had to pay huge mobile phone bills.

At the time of the Canberra fires, I was not aware of any mobile phone providers who took this into consideration by negating or reducing mobile phone bills for victims (I would love to be proved wrong on this).

Survivors

Consider the survivors, who did not lose their homes so have to return to a devastated community. Please don’t keep saying to them “Well, at least you didn’t lose your house”. They are going through such mixed emotions after losing friends and neighbours, that they may have mixed emotions about being ‘spared’.

They have to return to the devastated landscape and try and rebuild their lives. Their children will play in ash and dirt, the amount of dust and debri flying through the air is unbelievable. They will spend the next year or so cleaning constantly and yet everything will still remain covered in a layer of fine ash and dust. They won’t be able to hang clothes on the line because they come in dirtier than when they went out. These seem like insignificant things, but when these things happen after a tragedy such as this, when you’ve lost friends and neighbours,and your support networks have gone, they make a very traumatic situation even more stressful. In the weeks to come, donations of play equipment, sandpits, soil, plants and trees will be much needed and appreciated.

Asbestos

Some of the homes burnt may contain asbestos. Asbestos fibres explode under intense heat. If the home was built before 1984 it is likely some asbestos would be in the wet areas (bathrooms and laundries and some kitchens) and the eaves. If these sheets have been broken up, small amounts of asbestos fibre would have been released. While some asbestos is present in some of the dust and ash from destroyed homes, the levels are not high and the large size of the asbestos fibres released from asbestos sheets means there is only a very low risk of it causing disease. (refer to www.health.act.gov.au and put in ‘asbestos’ under search)

So, the risk IS low, but there is still some risk. So reduce this risk, and the risk of dust inhalation, by providing dust masks with filters and sturdy gloves to those who want to sort through the burnt remains of their homes and belongings.

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