With proper planning we will bounce back.

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The following article was first published in The Age here on February 11, 2009 following the tragic bushfires in Victoria. I wrote to the government with advice based on international experience. There response: That only applies in third world countries. Unfortuantly that is not correct. It is interesting to compare the circumstances in the fire affected regions now.

I have also spoken on impacts of planning and aid here.

With proper planning we’ll bounce back

INTERNATIONAL experience tells us that the sooner the planning for reconstruction begins, the better it is both for the communities affected and for the ultimate results. The United Nations even suggests that post-disaster reconstruction planning take place before a disaster – that is, when contingency planning is made.
So what now for Victoria? Federal and state politicians, together with community leaders, have a critical role. In the United Nations experience, successful post-disaster recovery depends on how fast critical decision-makers can change their focus from the immediate disaster to the rehabilitation, how these decision-makers can mobilise communities to look forward.
The appointment of Christine Nixon therefore is a good move. We in the United Nations often advise governments to immediately pull someone out of the immediate emergency response and have them look to reconstruction. Hence the Victorian Government so far has acted smartly.
In our post-disaster recovery work we often use the catchphrase “Build Back Better”. It is catchphrase that Victorians could use now.
It is critical to accept the disaster, to grieve and to mourn lost friends, but then focus on creating the desire to rebuild and to seize the opportunity to improve on what came before.
For example, the destruction of Marysville, the beautiful town I have spent many pleasant afternoons in, is devastating. But, in rebuilding it, what can we do to improve it? We have an opportunity to work with the community to look at road layout, critical infrastructure, rezoning and see if the balance in the new Marysville can improve on the old.
There is always a temptation to rebuild communities the way they were – the same schools, facilities and so on. However, total destruction, while tragic, gives a great opportunity to review the community’s infrastructure and ask whether changes should be made.
The same will apply to Kinglake and Kinglake West. I often had a dim sim in the Beales’ store before heading down the road to St Andrews. I mourn the loss of friends there, but can we rebuild Kinglake and Kinglake West back even better? What would the communities like to see improved or changed?
Building Back Better, therefore, may not be building back the same. Now is the time to work with the communities to help reconstruct their lives and their towns, and the sooner it starts the better.
The sooner political and community leaders can get together and start working – by first analysing what was there before and then deciding what should be built back – the better.
There may be a temptation to keep focus on the immediate disaster, but I would urge decision-makers to get together with state MPs and councillors and form community reconstruction groups, to support Christine Nixon in her work and to improve the communities.
As well as resulting in better planning, the psycho-social aspects of getting a community to look forward, in my experience, results in better and stronger communities.
For this reason school classes must begin as soon as they can – in temporary, portable or relocated classrooms. Returning children to school has two great impacts. First, it allows children to begin to get a sense of normality. The psycho-social impact of this is positive. But second, it also frees parents from the day-to-day child-care burden, allowing them to concentrate on critical issues for their family’s future. Will they rebuild? Where? What will their livelihood be?
And on the subject of livelihoods, we need great thought and great care in building back our communities. The rural livelihoods need support for restocking and reseeding. The tourism industry, however, will be much tougher.
Again for Marysville, and the other many small and beautiful towns throughout the fire-affected region, the attraction of large trees, dense forests and beautiful nature are many years from fully re-establishing themselves.
So while Nixon has a challenge to meet the infrastructure needs, the livelihood needs will also prove a great challenge.
While we commend and support the ongoing work of the emergency response volunteers, the CFA, the Red Cross and many other volunteers, we need to support also the long and difficult task that Nixon and her colleagues will have over the coming years, to restore and rebuild livelihoods and lifestyles of the people so tragically struck down.
Andrew MacLeod is an emergency management specialist working as senior recovery adviser in the United Nations Resident Co-ordinator’s Office in Manila, the Philippines. He was an ALP candidate for McEwen in the 2001 federal election.

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