Natural disaster recovery in Australia
The Regional Australia Institute has today released From Disaster to Renewal, a new report looking at natural disaster recovery in Australia. The report, which draws on case studies of four towns still recovering from flooding, cyclones and bushfires up to five years down the track, reveals there is inadequate planning for many of the short and long-term disaster effects.
Not only this, the RAI found that many recovery efforts fail to take advantage of significant financial reinvestment in a community, focusing excessively on returning a town back to ‘normal’ rather than adapting to changed economic drivers or exploring opportunities for renewal. It might not be until 5-10 years down the track that the full impact of a disaster on a community is realised, by which stage reversing the negative economic trend can be extremely difficult.
Looking at some of the typical barriers to the recovery process, the RAI found that even something as innocent as well-intentioned physical donations were a mixed blessing, not only presenting problems with storage and distribution, but weakening the demand for local business. The role of the media in the recovery process is also scrutinised in the report, with an excessive focus on the extent of destruction in a town seen as driving post-disaster stigma; the perception among the wider community that the town has been wiped off the map. Not only does this have a negative impact on the psyche of the recovering town – and peoples’ decisions to stay and rebuild – but it can deter important economic drivers like tourism and investment later down the track, when images of destruction continue to resonate long after the media attention has turned elsewhere.
Our CEO, Ms Su McCluskey says stakeholders need to be aware of the roles they play, both positive and negative, on the local economy as a community recovers. Otherwise, there is a serious risk of local businesses collapsing, their small margins being highly vulnerable to changes in market conditions. “Unless we are aware of the challenges for the local economy, a negative spiral of population displacement can develop, where businesses close, jobs are lost, and people are forced away in search of work,” she says.
The true impact of this, however, is often masked by the ‘reconstruction mirage’, where an influx or workers and demand for goods and services temporarily buoy the local economy as the town is rebuilt. The reconstruction phase also comes with its own challenges, where an excessive focus on getting things back to ‘normal’ can fail to take strategic advantage of significant, and sometimes unprecedented, government investment in the community.
From Disaster to Renewal also found that unless affected communities are adaptable to changes as a result of the disaster, including the ability to recognise that local economic drivers may have been permanently altered and act accordingly, the impact may be felt for up to 25 years down the track. A series of recommendations for improving our approach to natural disaster recovery in Australia can be found in the report.