For The General Public

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 the general public

Donate cash

Every little bit counts. If every person in Australia donated just five dollars, imagine what a difference it would make.

Basic essentials

Please only donate things that are new or of good quality. Don’t slow down the relief effort by having the team receiving the donations in Victoria have to sort through linen, clothing or manchester that is soiled, torn, buttons missing or otherwise damaged in any way. Better to donate one item that is new or in good condition rather than several things that you don’t wear anymore because they’re too out of fashion, have broken zips or are stained. Similarly with bed linen, towels, blankets etc, only donate what is good quality or new.

Think of all the things you need every day—pyjamas, toothbrush, toothpaste, face washer, soap, toiletries bag, deodorant, hairbrush, comb, shampoo, clothes suitable for work, casual clothes, belt, shoes, socks, watch, hair ties, wallet, handbag, keyring, hat, sunscreen, etc. These people have nothing. While they will receive immediate assistance in the form of cash and gift vouchers from charitable organisations for major retail outlets, I remember that every day there was something I needed and didn’t have. Within the first few days we needed notepads and pens just to deal with the paperwork and the insurance company.

Needs change over time, as people move into temporary accommodation they will need cooking utensils, pots, pans, plates, cups, bowls, kitchen knives, furniture, TVs, beds….the list is endless.

Cold weather will come in another month or two and winter clothes will be needed at this time – warm tops, coats, hats and scarves. Blankets, electric blankets and heaters will also be needed. I distinctly remember the day the weather suddenly turned cold in Canberra and no-one in the family had a warm top to wear.

Kits

If you’re thinking of what else to give, put together a first aid kit for the home, or an office kit (containing sticky tape, scissors, notepads, pens, stapler etc), or a toiletry bag (with toothpaste, toothbrush, nail scissors, shampoo, etc), or a make-up kit with make-up, eye make-up remover, lip gloss, mascara etc), or a hair care kit for a child with a brush, hair ties etc, or a sports kit for a child (drink bottle, hat, lunchbox, sunscreen, soccer ball), a kitchen kit (mixing bowls, cookbooks, cooking utensils, a good sharp knife, etc,), a tool kit (hammer, nails, screwdrivers, hacksaw etc), a present kit (birthday cards, wrapping paper, sticky tape, pens, ribbon) – these will be much appreciated.

Make something

Some of our most treasured items are the ones that were made, with love, by complete strangers. The quilt that was one of the hundreds that arrived from all over Australia, the hand-knitted rugs that my children like to snuggle under in winter. If you make jewellery, make a few pairs of earrings or a necklace. If you make toys, make something for the children who have lost theirs. If you knit, make a winter scarf. If you sew, make some table placemats or a beautiful table runner. If you’re an artist, paint a picture or frame a drawing.

I still find it incredibly moving that people cared enough to put time and love into making something that has now become a new family treasure for us.

Grow something

Those that remain, and those that decide to rebuild, face a blackened, denuded landscape. If you live in within reasonable distance of the bushfire area, pot some some seedlings and start growing some vegetation to help rejuvenate the gardens that were lost. Contact your local nursery, land care or conservation group to see what vegetation is drought resistant and/or native to the area. In Canberra, a very successful Garden Regeneration Scheme was set-up by volunteers and in the two-year period after the fires, they helped many, many people re-landscape their gardens. To see green, to see new growth, when we returned to our rebuilt home, was not only beautiful but gave us hope that we too could recover.

Kids

My three children were young at the time of the fires, so I remember well how grateful I was when we received toys, colouring-in books, pencils and textas, craft items, DVDs, books to read and pushbikes.

Friends and acquaintances

If you know personally know someone who was affected, every little gesture of help and support helps. Bake some biscuits or a meal and drop it around to them, offer to put their washing on the line, offer to do their supermarket shopping, offer to mind their kids. I remember feeling so overwhelmed and so busy answering phone calls and organising basic survival that I simply didn’t have time or energy to cook meals, wash, clean and do all the other things that keep a family going—this went on for months.
This help will be invaluable in coming weeks and months.

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