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Disaster recovery in Australia

By Paul Stevenson - posted Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Natural disasters are an inevitable part of life, although here in Australia our climate and environment means that we are more susceptible to natural disasters than many other nations. Climate change also suggests that natural disasters may become more commonplace in the future, both on a global scale and here in Australia. Whilst the occurrence of natural disasters may be beyond our control, how we respond to such disasters is very much within our own control. I want to suggest here some public policy changes in the way we as a nation respond to natural disasters, and how we view disaster recovery.

Firstly, I would suggest that we need to move away from the tendency to appoint military disaster co-ordinators, without considering the possibility of co-ordinators from civil society or from the private sector. This is not to doubt the character, commitment and professionalism of our military leaders. I have been singularly impressed with those whom I have met personally, in my own work, as a psychologist, in disaster recovery. Yet I suspect the engagement of a military person as a disaster co-ordinator reflects the desire of politicians to be seen to be decisive. Logically this ought not be the central factor in planning disaster recovery, and we need to be thinking about this beforehand.

Secondly, and further to the above, I would suggest that we need to move away from the tendency to involve the military forces as the major agency in disaster recovery. I can vividly recall, in the recent Queensland floods, the military parading down the main street of Bundaberg, in impressive tracked vehicles. The reality was, however, that these were not really suited to what was required. Pick-ups would have been far more useful. Again, this is not to criticize the military forces per se, who are deeply committed to what they do. However it is important to question whether the military should be the first option in disaster recovery.


Thirdly, I would suggest that we need to move away from an evacuation mentality, whereby the first response is to move people away from the disaster. Yes, it is true that people need to be removed from danger. Yet evacuation often is done as a knee-jerk reaction to what is happening, and not based on genuine danger faced by a population. And, importantly, an evacuation mentality denies community ownership of disaster recovery. The implications for long-term resilience are immense, as often frustrated residents will watch on helplessly as external workers repair damage. This tends to foster a victim mentality, leading to further anxiety, stress and depression.

Fourthly, I would suggest the establishment of a centralized government payment bureau to oversee disaster relief appeal funds. One of the major problems in disaster recovery has been the delay in payment to victims, resulting in undue stress. Disaster relief appeals typically attract many millions of dollars, for instance $270 million following the 2011 Brisbane Floods. However such disaster relief funds have generally been poorly administered. Ideally the centralized payment bureau would be organized on a national basis, but, saving that, complementary legislation could be passed in the various state jurisdictions. The established centralized payment bureau could register and oversee all interventions, and negotiate with the insurance companies about reimbursements, taking the stress off residents already struggling with their losses.

Fifthly, I would suggest that the central government payment bureau should be an agency which could oversee the registration of qualified tradespersons and hardware suppliers for the disaster relief process. This would mean that repairs could commence immediately, with invoices from both qualified tradespersons and suppliers submitted to the payment bureau. Moreover, qualified tradespersons and suppliers would be easily monitored due to the centralization of the payment bureau. When thousands of similar job sheets pool into a centralized agency, it will become easier to assess over-charging and poor workmanship. Over time (and subsequent disasters) unsatisfactory qualified tradespersons and suppliers can be identified, suspended or prosecuted, as appropriate.

Finally, I would suggest that as a matter of public policy, those within high risk areas should be encouraged to take out insurance. There are a number of ways this might be done. Moreover the centralized payment bureau could be an agency for overseeing the regulation of the insurance industry in dealing with disaster claims. For instance, a centralized payment bureau might offer advice to consumers in comparing insurance policies, overseeing insurance compliance, and overseeing fraudulent claim denials. It is true that in a general sense Fair Trading within state jurisdictions already undertakes this function, but the advantage of a centralized payment bureau undertaking this function is that it would have specialist expertise in this area.

It is tempting to look at the above suggestions and fear that there will be yet another demand on the public purse. Not necessarily so. The public have indicated, through support for disaster relief appeals, that there is a strong public desire to support those affected by natural disasters. This speaks well of our nation. If there is a desire to support those in need from natural disasters, then it follows that there will be a desire to ensure that such support is properly administered. This is what I am advocating.

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About the Author

Paul Stevenson OAM is an Australian psychologist, with extensive international experience in the treatment of psychological trauma and in disaster intervention.

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