Now, with more than a decade of hindsight, that second anniversary feels like very early days. There had been a lot of progress in recovery, certainly, but we couldn’t know yet, what lie ahead. The overwhelming impact of disaster means that it touches every aspect of your life. It takes time, sometimes a long time, for communities to re-group, for people to grieve and take stock, and to try to make sense of what has happened and what the future might hold.
In our community there were families who struggled along in temporary accommodation for a couple of years, who then moved away because they couldn’t afford to rebuild. Others who rebuilt their homes and then put them up for sale because they couldn’t do another fire season. Some people, including little kids, developed anxiety or depression or were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The effects of long term stress resulted in acute and chronic health issues. Tragically, we lost some people in our community to suicide. Businesses experienced economic impacts that resulted in closures and loss of jobs.
The University of Melbourne’s Beyond Bushfires project, a 6-year study involving over 1000 participants has examined the impacts of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires on individuals and communities over time. Its findings identify up to twice the average level of mental health problems in recovering communities three to four years after the fires, and a recommendation for development of five-year recovery plans.
It’s a much more realistic timeframe. The research also recognises the importance of social ties and community connections as protective factors for people recovering from disaster.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the experiences of so many communities impacted by the recent bushfires. Lives, homes and property lost. Businesses destroyed. Pets, livestock and native animals perished, and untold damage to the natural environment. In my work with recovering communities, my heart breaks for everyone. Not only because of the impacts they have experienced but because of the long, long road that lies ahead.
Help and support is urgently needed in the aftermath of a bushfire and immediate needs must be met. But we mustn’t let our own distress dictate the pace of recovery. People need our help now, and they will need help and support long into the future if they are going to be able to live a life they value once again.
There are issues and challenges that need immediate attention, and many that are yet to emerge. We must stay the course and support people to recover at a pace that is right for them – now and in the years to come.
Anne Leadbeater OAM is an independent consultant on disaster recovery and a volunteer member of the Australian Red Cross Bushfires Advisory Panel. Anne is a resident of Kinglake and lived through the 2009 Black Saturday fires, coordinating recovery efforts for Kinglake Ranges communities.
This article first appeared in the Herald Sun on Monday 27 January 2020.