It is just over one year since a record-smashing flood and landscape collapse event raged through the Northern Rivers. In the media frenzy of the floodiversary there is plenty of attention on trauma, frustration, government failure or upon the heroics of what must have been one of the largest most successful civilian rescue efforts in Australia’s history.

Reflecting upon that year I have been moved to somehow try to accommodate the tragedy with the triumph, the loss with the growth, the beauty with the horror, and to seek to articulate what we have learned about ourselves, about disasters and about this thing we call government.

The question of what do disaster communities need is a fair one, but so too is the question of what can the rest of the country learn from disaster communities.

In the flood experience of myself and so many of my peers, mixed inextricably with loss was acceptance, with devastation was empowerment, and with grief was inspiration.

I feel as though deep in the evolutionary brain of humans, is a special capacity for natural disasters. When it is activated we get to witness some of the most inspirational qualities of humans both individually and collectively. From the courage and calm of those trapped in or on roofs, to the selfless courage of their rescuers, to the generosity of spirit of entire communities both in and around disaster, to the collective processing of trauma, we have been privileged to witness something truly remarkable.

Beneath the seemingly inexorable drudgery of civilisation, of a world dominated by disconnection, consumerism, materialism and individualism and the debilitating cult of authority, lies human potentials of immense power, beauty and sheer practical usefulness.

For at least 80% of us disaster unleashes what is great within us.

The reality is that for major disasters the local community will always be the first responders. This is true not only of rescue (the immediate life-saving) but also of the much longer and more wearying road of recovery.

Before we criticise the failure of government or emergency services in a major emergency, we should pause to acknowledge that what we are actually seeing is not the failure of government, but actually its inherent and unavoidable limits.

It is impossible for the state to have enough boats, personnel, or organising capacity to match what a self-organising community can offer up virtually in an instant. The community lives in and amongst its own disaster, and it’s resources of all kinds become mobilised almost instantly. From the tinny army, to the many fine people who magically appear at the drop off points to take in soggy refugees to feed and clothe them, to the emergent relief groups such as Helping Hands, Koori Mail and Resilience Lismore, and beyond that to the distributed emergent activities of the community itself, these are our most powerful and effective first responders and always will be.

Government, even, emergency services have organisational models that function well enough in predictable scenarios but are caught out when the domain of chaos calls for instant responses to novel challenges. In an ‘emergency’, the most powerful first response is the ‘emergent’ one.

What we experienced with the collapse of the police, the overstretch of the SES, the dysfunction of communications infrastructure was not an aberration, it was exactly what major disaster looks and feels like, and only self-organising and emergent community response can fill that gap.

So, what is the lesson here? The lesson is that in the first days and weeks government will spin its wheels trying to get its large hierarchical, risk-averse structures to mobilise and that the 100% best practice response of government would be to first and foremost resource the community’s mobilisation as fully and freely as the bean counters and audit trail goblins can tolerate. Literally drop a cool few million onto the emergent structures and stop the control fantasy that the community may not spend it as wisely as a room full of bureaucrats (on big wages) might spend it three months down the line.

Someone was already paying for the tinny fuel, the clothes and the sandwiches, just support them!

Secondly, and I think Lismore did this well, respect the community response, don’t inhibit it, don’t try to corral it, and don’t engage in the authoritarian fantasy that the community will descend into mob chaos without the state. The truth is the chaos is the terrain already and the spontaneity of the community is its best antidote. Authority at that point would be clunky and dysfunctional.

This brings me to lesson three. Leave your safety mentality at the kerb this is a disaster in case you hadn’t noticed. Faced with the potential for massive loss of life, each rescuer did what they had to do, faced with a mountain of mud every crew did what they had to do and took all of the necessary risks.

The Lismore free state, a place in time where the veneer of society was stripped away, where money was irrelevant and where goodwill was currency lasted for many weeks. One of the most important challenges for government is how to gradually and respectfully re-establish itself into that space.

Its not that we don’t need government its just that we need them to be useful, not anxious, inflexible and authoritarian.

The other great lesson is about that other great governance system of our time, the insurance cartels. Seriously, in my observations those without flood insurance were better able to retain control of their own disaster journey, and their own recovery than many with insurance. I have heard so many harrowing stories of gangs of ‘make safe’ goons sent by insurance companies bullying vulnerable people and stripping homes of the wear-with-all for recovery. Tearing out wooden lining boards, plumbing and even floors, then leaving. Having completely displaced people from their homes, the insurance companies sometimes decided, you didn’t have flood insurance anyway, or if you did, we won’t get on to a rebuild for more than year. Worse, we are now hearing of a refusal to replace the destroyed and resilient timber walls with more timber and a truly insane insistence on replacing wood with gyprock.

I am not saying mistakes were not made by well-wishing people partaking in recovery, we know the orgy of disposal became irrational and harmful at times but its nothing on the scale of the impact of the make safe goons.

So, what of the government’s role in long term recovery, because this is where the slow-moving wheels of bureaucracy at least have some purchase (so to speak). For my part the immediate back home grants were very useful $20k was a much-needed help to residents, although there was some discrimination against renters. But the grand promises of buy backs was probably made prematurely. It looked good as a show of political support but it also had the effect of immobilising people from attending to their own recovery. Like a cruel donkey and carrot game.

I have noticed that those who have fared best were those who were able (and not everyone was) to move back into their homes, camp on their verandas with a basic camping kit and slowly make their surroundings more comfortable.

There is nothing worse than being on hold and having not enough information to make choices, and sadly this has been the collective impact of the NRRC processes for many people. I understand why it takes so long to undertake something as huge as a buy back scheme but it needs to have been more considerate of people’s immediate needs along the way.

Our disaster community has done an incredible job of both rescue and recovery. The flood and its mud were one set of challenges and traumas but the impacts of insurance companies and government processes has been a source of much secondary trauma. There are so many lessons to be learnt in that space, and hopefully government may try to learn, I’m not as optimistic about the insurance industry.

As a disaster community we can be rightly proud of ourselves, we are an inspiration to many, and as the escalating chaos of climate change engulfs Australia and the world, our learnings and our collective and individual growth and wisdom will be a resource for survival for many communities in the future.

We don’t need pity, and we don’t need managing. What we need is support for our own processes, resourcing and the respect from government, media and society at large, that we are not just victims we are pioneers of skill set that other communities will sadly increasingly need in the future.

All the best to our great community a year on from a truly disastrous emergency, thanks for emerging.







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