Australia's Fires: Respond Now, but Also Measure Toll on People for the Future


Jan 20, 2020

A burning gum tree is felled to stop it from falling on a car in Corbago, as bushfires continue in New South Wales, Australia, January 5, 2020, photo by Tracey Nearmy/Reuters

A burning gum tree is felled to stop it from falling on a car in Corbago, as bushfires continue in New South Wales, Australia, January 5, 2020

Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Reuters

As an Australian, I have watched with anguish as massive bushfires devastated wide swaths of my home country. As a researcher who studies community resilience, I can't help but think of how much blood, sweat, tears, and money will be required to recover.

I was born in a small mining town in central New South Wales and raised in the Pilbara, a remote region in northwestern Australia. I loved the isolated places where we lived. I was transfixed-scared-amused by the bungarra—lizards that resemble 4-foot-long dinosaurs—foraging close to our campsites. They could sprint off into the spinifex, undeterred by the clumps of spikey grass that made walking a straight path impossible for any human kid. The purple mulla mulla flower was my secret superhero—pretty and feathery yet standing sentry with drought-resistant stoicism. We never ventured far into that unforgivingly dry, dusty landscape without gallons of water.

The isolation of small towns like mine meant close-knit communities. We had to stick together to survive those harsh conditions. Even though I have lived in North American cities for more than two decades, that environment is still core to how I make sense of the world.

Now the Australian bushfires are consuming communities, flora, and fauna and releasing a smoke plume that is circling the globe. How will the people and places ever recover from such devastation?

Responding to the Fires Now

We know from previous disaster research what government agencies, nonprofits, businesses, and communities can do right now to enhance recovery and resilience.

Rally the resources for long-term support. Be prepared for different people to need different types of support and for those needs to change over time.

Help displaced people stay connected. The people who most need their social ties to family and friends often have the fewest resources to maintain those networks.

Stay flexible during recovery. Be clear about the national, state, and local visions, but also use adaptive management strategies to allow for course corrections as new information comes in or conditions change.

Engage local communities. New technologies can be helpful in high-level assessments of damages and needs, but they can't replace human insights. To develop and implement recovery plans that truly meet local needs, those communities have to be engaged from the outset.

Measuring the Toll on People Now Could Improve Future Disaster Recovery

The priority in responding to a catastrophic event is to ensure safety and, where possible, return evacuees to their homes and quickly restore services. Experts then assess damage to critical infrastructure such as electric grids, telecommunications systems, water supply, and transportation routes by comparing conditions before and after the disaster.

The toll on people is harder to measure than the toll on places. Determining the mental health, social, and microeconomic needs is difficult largely because pre-disaster data simply don't exist. We might know the basics about an area's demographics and economy, but comprehensive baseline data from a large, representative sample of individuals or households is not something generally collected.

To support decisions about where to put resources for maximum benefit, governments and communities need population surveys that are forward-looking rather than reactive. The surveys need to capture people's social, economic, and health experiences over time—before an emergency, through acute disaster phase, and during the extensive recovery.

The toll on people is harder to measure than the toll on places. Determining the mental health, social, and microeconomic needs is difficult. Pre-disaster data simply don't exist.

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This type of longitudinal information is invaluable. It can reveal which programs provide the most effective emotional or economic support; what social conditions make some individuals more prone to substance abuse or domestic conflict; why some people change their sources of information over the disaster lifecycle; when compensation and claims processes stoke resentment and anger rather than healing; and whether closing damaged schools to keep kids safe inadvertently creates a void of trusted adults for young children.

We know from past catastrophes that disruption to people's lives, work, family, and social ties is uneven. For instance, farmers and others who rely on natural resources to earn their livelihoods are particularly vulnerable, partly because of economic strain but also because disasters upset the community networks upon which they can ordinarily rely. Women, older adults, children, and people with prior trauma also tend to be more at risk for depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress.

Stresses also get amplified by the wear and tear of daily adversity: social disparities, economic stagnation, already deteriorated environments, and civil disenfranchisement. A better understanding of how different groups experience disaster impacts will help decisionmakers anticipate where to direct specific types of financial, health, social, or other resources.

Rural Australians have a special kind of resilience; their perspectives and wisdom have been gained through hard experience. Now, more than ever, I wish I could unearth time capsules of such wisdom to see what makes people recover when their lives are shattered like this. Perhaps if we'd been paying closer attention all these years with longitudinal disaster surveys, we'd not only be able to trace trajectories of triumph, but also know when to anticipate persistent problems, and for whom. While some people and places will need more support than others, the vast scale of this season's bushfires reminds us that disaster resilience and disaster risk reduction are everyone's responsibility.

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Melissa Finucane is a senior behavioral and social scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.