NICK JANS. Post-2020 Disaster community recovery: lessons from Black Saturday

There is an abundance of evidence about what we need to do to prepare ourselves for bushfires but there is very little about the best way to encourage post disaster community recovery.

The recovery experience in the Marysville district following the Black Saturday catastrophe, however, not only provides a positive and timely case study, but also points to some important weaknesses in the assumptions behind the government strategy at that time and which risk becoming apparent again in the years ahead.

The Black Saturday Royal Commission, for instance, did a solid job of identifying problems in disaster management and how these might be addressed in the future.

But community recovery was not part of its terms of reference. Ann perhaps it should have been. Because, as the huge scale of the contemporary recovery effort becomes evident, it’s plain that it There is an abundance of evidence about what we need to do to prepare ourselves for bushfires but there is very little about the best way to encourage post disaster community recovery.

will demand imaginative thinking and action on a multitude of levels – thinking and action that politicians and bureaucrats can often be slow to embrace.

In the aftermath of a disaster, some communities fracture under the strain of despair. But others – like those in Marysville and the surrounding district, known as “The Triangle” – become more united and cohesive, and emerge from the experience stronger and more capable than before.

The locals’ potential to do so was demonstrated just a few weeks after the fire, when the community held its biggest Anzac Day ceremony ever. Veterans from all around the country marched down the devastated main street that day, watched by a crowd ten times its normal size. It sent an implicit but powerful message, particularly to the locals, of what it could achieve under duress.

And the citizens reinforced that a week later when more than 300 of them gathered for a day of collective small-group brainstorming activity to kickstart the process of planned community recovery. This was rounded off a few weeks later by a more intensive weekend workshop where a blueprint for the new Marysville-Triangle area was developed.

By mid-May, the golf club – the largest surviving commercial entity in the village – was welcoming visiting players on its restored front 9 holes; and by November the whole course had been restored, and the club was hosting the first of two Pro-Ams.

By mid-June, with the help of corporate benefactors, notably the Fox and Forrest families, together with agencies and bodies from all around the country, construction of a temporary village to house dozens of displaced residents was completed.

And by the end of the year, Marysville again had a viable retail facility, a facility that also served as a social hub.

The energy for all this came from the community. And a key factor in these various initiatives was the efforts of local leadership networks. This was provided by a local entity that called itself the Marysville & Triangle Development Group. MATDG (pronounced “Mad Dog”): a dozen or so local citizens, with a range of professional and life experiences who came together following the fires to be a conduit between the community and the authorities.

MATDG was guided by a crucial piece of advice from billionaire-philanthropist Andrew Forrest. He had come to the district not only with material and logistic aid but with a fairly simple strategic message. Forrest argued that there is a clear and simple reason why certain communities bounce back from disasters and others just fade away. Those that rebound, he told the local leadership group, are those who take responsibility for their own recovery and rebuilding. Who don’t sit waiting for government assistance in pursuing their goals, although they don’t hesitate to ask for any help they need. Who set themselves ambitious goals, focusing on “regeneration” rather than simply “replacement”.

And – crucially – even if, as often happens, those goals are not quite achieved, the community usually advances itself by much more than it ever thought possible, because the very process helps it become stronger and better than it was before.

“You in the Marysville-Triangle”, Andrew Forrest told us, “you must do the same”.

This philosophy was all the more important because it was the antithesis of the approach that the government expected. It expected affected communities to wait patiently for a phased program of reconstruction to unfold, on the implicit assumption that those hit by a disaster would be groggy and stressed for some time afterwards.

Perhaps this made sense to politicians and bureaucrats, but it ignored some vital truths about social activity. To begin with, community knowledge is local knowledge, a vital element in strategic planning. And, just as importantly, the very process of engagement stimulates and lifts the human spirit, and that positive outlook is arguably as important in recovery as is structural rebuilding.

Now, a decade after Black Saturday, the fruits of the Marysville-Triangle district’s post-disaster spirit can be seen at every hand. Go there and you’ll find townships that are more modern, more attractive and more welcoming. Visitor numbers have returned to pre-fire levels. And while this is partly due to the healing power of nature, most of it is due to the much less discernible but equally important sense of enterprise with which the district now promotes and presents itself. The Marysville-Triangle example points to some fundamental lessons for preparing for the possibility of disaster recovery. Chief amongst these lessons is the need to build local leadership capability. Proactive and imaginative local leadership is a crucial element in post-disaster recovery. The very process of involvement lifts morale, builds skills, and encourages locals to take a longer-term perspective.

The great bonus for building local leadership is the secondary effect on routine business and community development. It’s an investment that would be more than repaid even if a disaster never came. Such an investment might in fact turn out to be one of the best general strategies for regional development.

Nick Jans was awardedan OAM for his contribution to community recovery in the Marysville-Triangle district following Black Saturday. A former Army officer, he is the author of the recently published Leadership Secrets of the Australian Army (Allen & Unwin, 2018).

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