THE FLOODS THAT swept through Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, causing death, injury and the destruction of homes, businesses and infrastructure, and threatening whole communities, were met with a determination and no small amount of community-mindedness to repair the damage and support those traumatised. The emphasis was on ‘cleaning up’, ‘bouncing back’, ‘putting the town back together again’, ‘rebuilding’ and ‘restoring things to how they were’ – no matter what it took. Julia Gillard, who often seemed out of touch with the realities and the emotions of the situation, suggested that the volunteer effort, financial donations and stoicism of those who suffered loss, as well as the numerous acts of kindness and bravery, were evidence that the Australian spirit, ‘what makes this country great’, was alive and well. Even Anna Bligh, who so impressed throughout the crisis with her leadership qualities and her capacity to provide a safe container for the anxieties of those on the front line, while making decisions based on sound judgements, felt it necessary (and perhaps it was) to call up the legendary ‘Queenslander’: ‘We’re the people that they breed tough, north of the border.’ But are such qualities sufficient to meet the range of challenges that Australia has to contend with, now and in the future?
Disaster management is an old problem, different to the uncertainties of what lies ahead. When emerging from a disaster, our priorities are to secure the injured, remove the dead, provide support for those in shock or left without basic necessities, ensure public safety, assess the scale and extent of the damage, identify and minimise potential risks, remove debris and property beyond repair, ensure law and order, and slowly begin the task of rebuilding and restoring wherever possible. Co-ordinating and delivering a comprehensive disaster-management relief and rebuilding program is a huge and complex task, requiring the skills of many; the mobilisation and organisation of multiple resources; and careful, painstaking work in the most challenging of circumstances. Usually this co-ordination can only be undertaken through a top-down approach, by those prepared to impose order. Spirits can be broken in such recovery efforts, despite wishes to the contrary, when confronted with loss in the face of the power of nature and the temporary shattering of personal hopes. There is also a comforting degree of certainty that can accompany such work: we know what was there before and the focus is on restoring or recreating that past, even if the past has to be modified based on the learning following the disaster. But sometimes the disaster, or what it reveals, is so great that there can be no return to the past and a new beginning has to be found.
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