Helping the regions recover from disaster

As many parts of regional Australia continue to burn, the devastation is still unfolding. As a country, we start to count the cost of what has occurred - with the hottest part of summer still to come. However, out of the devastation and terror has come an overwhelming level of support and compassion - not only from within, but across the world. While donations in the early stages are welcomed and helpful, at the Regional Australia Institute our research has shown there needs to be a shift in focus as the process moves from relief to recovery.

In 2013, RAI worked with Griffith University to examine the economic recovery of rural communities after natural disasters. The aim of the research - From Recovery to Renewal - was to critically review economic recovery practices in Australia and, based on both field research and extensive literature reviews, and develop proposals to improve approaches to facilitating economic recovery after disasters. Four towns were examined. These were Cardwell after Tropical Cyclone Yasi in February 2011; Carisbrook after the 2011 flash floods; Emerald following the 2010-11 floods; and Marysville after the February 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

The studies developed as part of this paper drew from extensive interviews with residents, including community leaders, business owners, long-term residents and government officials. Their stories constitute the lived experience of post-disaster business recovery in regional Australia.

Separately, a review of international literature about post-disaster business recovery was undertaken to identify key themes and learnings from overseas experiences.

Then, as we are seeing now, the research highlighted the often overwhelming support received in the initial post-disaster stages.

From trauma counselling to hardship grants to the mass donation of toothbrushes and phones, there is extensive support and focus on the immediate disaster relief stage. The process then traditionally focuses on assisting communities with their emotional/social wellbeing and rebuilding damaged infrastructure. While these are necessary components, on their own, they are insufficient to enable robust recovery.

One of the key research findings was that the focus is often overwhelmingly on rebuilding physical infrastructure, however, without business recovery, crucial economic recovery cannot occur. Enabling business to re-open quickly is contingent on access to lifeline utilities such as power and water, as well as access to road and rail transport.

Local businesses also need customers - residents and support workers at first, visitors will return later. This is where the donations of food, personal and household goods can actually make things worse. Not at first, when these items are needed immediately, but in the weeks that follow when financial support starts to flow and the best chance for the survival of local businesses lies in getting local sales flowing too.

Emerald's experience highlights how important it was to protect or quickly restore transport and communications after a natural disaster, so non-affected businesses can reopen immediately. Its recovery was also aided by mining activity contributing to the regional economy.

In Cardwell, it was only as the rebuilding phase drew to a close that the state of the local economy post Cyclone Yasi became clear. It experienced what the RAI identified as the 'reconstruction mirage' in which a flurry of rebuilding activity distorted the real impact on the local economy.

As we have all seen over the last few weeks, one of the critical impacts of disasters on a local economy is the destruction of housing. An immediate flow-on effect is population displacement in the affected region. The 2013 research confirmed that the longer residents are displaced the less likely they are to return. In the case of Marysville, it was argued by many remaining residents that if it had not been for the temporary village which was created, the population exodus would have been greater.

The reconstruction boom can also have the unintended consequence of furthering displacement. In Marysville and Cardwell, the boom drove a demand for housing in a market with reduced stock, causing rental prices to spike. Those most at risk are residents whose employment or employment opportunities have been compromised.

These examples highlight a critical issue: the process of recovery involves sub-stages, each with impacts that need to be carefully managed so good intentions lead to good short, medium and long-term outcomes.

Local people need to have a say in what's happening to their community, especially when there's pressure from outside the region to send help in to 'fix things up' for them. While the immediate future may look bleak for many regional communities as they work through some very dark days, supporting and promoting regional Australia is now more critical than ever.

It will take time, but a new 'normal' will be established in these affected communities.

Until then, the RAI will provide support and advice that will help them rebuild and thrive again.

Dr Kim Houghton is co-chief executive of the Regional Australia Institute