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March 3, 2024

Review of community response called for as challenges recognised

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The SES has classed 3,657 homes as uninhabitable across the Northern Rivers. Photo of Lismore flood by Mercedes Mambort.

The recent ‘unprecedented’ floods that hit the east coast of Australia saw people in local communities stepping forward to help each other as they were confronted by devastation and loss both personally and within the broader community. That was seen here as the community once again came together to help each other respond and recover from the impact of losing homes and businesses.

Local community members stepped forward to help coordinate and respond to the disaster; from people getting into boats and kayaks recusing strangers in Lismore to coordinating local response hubs in the hinterland and local towns.

The Mullumbimby Neighbourhood Centre set up the flood recovery centre in the Civic Hall as they prepared to support the flood recovery. Photo Aslan Shand

‘Since the last flooding with ex-cyclone Debbie, there has been significant work that has gone into building a network of organisations and groups that work collaboratively, apply best practice to support the community through incredibly difficult times. We learnt what not to do after the 2017 floods,’ said Julie Williams, manager of the Mullumbimby and District Neighbourhood Centre Inc (MDNC).

One of those organisations was Resilient Byron, which stepped in to help facilitate coordination and assistance in the immediate response phase of the flooding, along with other local services.

‘I was not in Mullumbimby during the first few days of the flood response as I was working with Fire and Rescue NSW primarily in Lismore,’ said Dr Jean Renouf who, at that time, was co-chair of Resilient Byron with Ella Goninan.

‘However, I was able to take an information-sharing as well as coordination role with Resilient Byron by bringing together a range of individuals and organisations. 

‘When I was able to get to Mullumbimby [later that week] we had taken on a number of new roles.’

Dr Richard Hil, board member of Resilient Byron and services and social work academic told The Echo, ‘In the immediate aftermath of disaster, it’s extraordinary people in local communities who respond most directly and effectively.

‘That’s been the case for as long as we’ve had natural disasters. But things are changing in terms of the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.’

Challenge of finding their place in response

However, as the immediate response moved into the recovery phase, challenges arose for Resilient Byron as they sought to find their place within the framework of services and response groups led by a mixture of local and government service providers.

The main street of Mullumbimby cleaning up after the ‘unprecedented’ flooding. Photo Jeff Dawson.

‘It is difficult when organisations or groups, with the best of intentions, don’t understand where they fit in the system, or network,’ explained Ms Williams.

‘Attempting to do everything only increases the gaps and risk to community. Services and groups are like everyone in community, none of us can do it alone, we all need each other collectively.

‘If there are new groups looking to engage in a response to disaster, they need to look at how to fill the gaps in service and support provision and not try to duplicate it or take over the roles of other service providers. There is nothing to be gained by duplication.’

Cultural difference

Dr Renouf said he recognised that ‘In the heat of a disaster, disagreement is normal and good communication is therefore essential. We all have to be able to work together in the face of these disasters and for this we need to have better systems in place’.

Ella Goninan has now resigned as co-chair of Resilient Byron.

‘Ella does not work with Resilient Byron anymore and is working within Holding Hands Under Ground (HHUG), the organisation she and Luke Jaaniste run. HUGG is continuing to host the hands-on flood response. There were cultural differences in the way we worked and actions have been taken to move forward.

‘I am now in the process of reaching out with humility to those people who feel that there were issues interacting with Resilient Byron. I am keen to hear any issues people and organisations had and have with Resilient Byron and look toward working together in the future.’

Preparation needed

Dr Hil agrees, reminding the community and government that ‘we have to be much better prepared (and we might have been had Abbott, Hunt et al not abolished a number of key agencies established for just this purpose). Services need to be better resourced and coordinated. The SES, RFS and other volunteer organisations need to be expanded and better supported, and we need carefully thought-out inter-agency planning and collaboration.

Review of community response needed

‘What we’ve learned from recent events is that there are gaps and lack of coordination within and between various services. My hope is that the upcoming review – and I trust there is one – addresses and acts upon these concerns. It’s not helpful to have folk saying, as they have done at the most senior levels of Resilience NSW, that everything went well in terms of the crisis response. It didn’t. People on the ground in local communities know that. Blind Freddy knows it,’ he said.

‘So, let’s have honesty and clarity. But let’s also be respectful, humble and prepared to listen to each other. Let’s not dismiss “red tape”, denigrate the efforts of others and position ourselves as “all knowing” We’re not. None of us.’

Ms Williams has highlighted that there needs to be appropriate training for responders and the supply of resources.

‘If a response group is saying they can supply certain services, they need to have had the training in that area to supply that service. Otherwise, it is the people they are seeking to help that suffer. Everyone needs to work together but also do what they are best at. There were some amazing efforts all round. Now is the time for honest evaluation, for real and authentic learning to serve us all well into the future.’

Acknowledging failures

‘I have met with all sorts of people and humbly listened to their experience of the flood response as these conversations shed light on what worked and what could be improved. My own views about community resilience have been challenged and I’m keen to do the deep work. This is the century of the climate crisis and massive biodiversity loss, and we have no choice but to find ways to work together,’ said Dr Renouf.

A house in Mullumbimby in the aftermath of the flooding. Photo Jeff Dawson

‘Beyond Resilient Byron, there are clearly many lessons in what occurred in the immediate aftermath of the flooding events, and thereafter. Questions around coordination, strategic response, resourcing, lines of responsibility etc are critical to any ongoing discussions. I’m hoping there will be a general review of the response, a lot of listening, understanding and the potential for healing.’

‘It is a very diverse community and system,’ says Ms Williams. ‘If we respectfully communicate, we can maximise the outcomes for the community. My hope is that we can build on the learnings of this time.’

‘One of the main principles in community development is “never assume you have all the answers”. Also, make sure you ask people what they need and want before leaping in,’ says Dr Hil.

‘In times of acute crisis, we need calm and an abundance of mutual respect. We need to think about what we’re doing and why, and who and what should guide our decision making. Acting on impulse or out of a sense of high moral purpose may not cut it. Above all, we need genuine respect for each other’s views. 

‘New initiatives need to work alongside more established community organisations, rather than coming over the top of them. We need everyone to be flexible and adaptable: a combination of established process and informed spontaneity.

‘Good faith, humility, cooperation, a preparedness to listen and learn are all essential ingredients in community disaster responses. The research evidence has long told us so.’ 

♦ The Echo reached out to Ms Goninan who told The Echo that ‘at the moment HHUG is working cooperatively through a number of issues with Resilient Byron and it would not be appropriate to respond to these questions until these issues are clarified and resolved. Once I am in a position to respond to your questions I will do so.’

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