Sue, thanks for joining us on the Blog Spot, can you start by telling us about your experience working with communities affected by bushfires or floods?
When Black Saturday happened 11 years ago, I was working in the Epping office of Kildonan UnitingCare, a community service organisation, and Kinglake was included in the geographical catchment. After the fires started over that weekend, I was on-the-ground by Sunday night, and by Monday morning I began my work undertaking financial counselling and emergency relief support. That’s where I stayed for the next two years. The major focus of my role was to provide guidance to organisations as many of their staff weren’t trained to support customers through a traumatic life event such as Black Saturday.
Kinglake and Whittlesea were hit hard and there was an immediate sense of survival, confusion and anger. Many people were displaced, having either left for safety or stayed to defend and subsequently lost their homes.
Kinglake and Whittlesea were hit hard and there was an immediate sense of survival, confusion and anger. Many people were displaced having either left for safety or stayed to defend, and subsequently lost their homes. People affected were not emotionally equipped to deal with such a traumatic event or navigate the crisis support immediately available to them. In those early days, we learnt that all the things we wanted to provide (clothes, food, housing etc..) weren't what people actually needed, what they needed was for us to just be present and to talk about the day-to day to help distract them from the crisis they were experiencing.
The recent bushfires and floods across Australia resulted in significant economic, environmental and social loss. It’s estimated over 75% of Australians were affected either directly or indirectly. Can you explain what some of the financial impacts are for these people?
The cost of insurance had a critical bearing in the outcome of the fires. Many people who left their homes had insurance, and subsequent guilt from doing so, and people who did not, chose to stay and defend their homes, putting their lives at risk and exposing themselves to a deeply traumatic experience.
Many small businesses just couldn’t survive. I remember one plant nursery owner, where all their stock was destroyed, and of course immediately after people weren’t buying plants. In the meantime, his partner left, and he had issues with addiction...
The complexity of human condition left many people financially devastated in the aftermath. Many small businesses just couldn’t survive. The fires destroyed a lot of stock, and of course immediately after people weren’t buying. In the meantime, people experienced relationship breakdowns and issues with addiction... Family violence referrals went up by 400% and self-harm and suicide reports were very high. The businesses that were successful, invested back into the community by making people feel welcome and accommodating their needs through such a difficult time.
In your experience, can you map out the journey of people rebuilding their lives after the 2019-20 Australian bushfires or floods and what some of the obstacles are they may experience? Can you share your knowledge on what the long-term financial effects of bushfires and floods may be?
Some people never rebuild. It’s too traumatic. In crisis, all the senses are impacted. For some people, all they can manage is a hug. For the first one to two years people are dealing with severe trauma and it’s often only after three to four years they’re able to start rebuilding. Physical trauma can last up to four years with many people experiencing anxiety from simple gusts of wind.
Because people had little control over so little, they used it to pay out their mortgages and all they had left was a depreciated property. It would have been better to put their insurance claim in an offset account to draw down from.
After the Black Saturday fires, for some people it took up to 4 years to present for the first time. After the crisis period, it was a very personal time with new housing, new career and new income streams. For many their insurance claims were paid out, and because they had little control over so little, they used it to pay out their mortgages and all they had left was a depreciated property. It would have been better to put their insurance claim in an offset account to draw down from rather than their mortgage, but people acted from a deep emotional place without being provided the right options and they often didn’t make the best long-term decisions.
Many businesses from across the Thriving Communities Partnership and beyond developed a bushfire response plan to immediately support customers affected by the 2019-20 Australian bushfires. What next? What should business consider moving forward to support customers experiencing long term financial impacts?
For local business on the ground, take the time to build a level of trust, pass the tissues and make the coffee. Understand the purpose of being there, be aware and prepare yourself and your staff. Just because staff can be there, doesn’t mean they should. Put measures in place to support them and maintain it for the full period you need to.
Recovery takes time and business should put long term strategies in place and design their crisis support products and services not just for 3 months, but longer with a 12 month review rather than opt-in options that customers are unaware of.
From a customer service perspective in banking, utilities or telecommunication for example, give people time and space to work out their next step. Don’t try to rescue people, just be patient and let them go on their own journey. Recovery takes time and business should put long term strategies in place and design their support products and services not just for 3 months, but longer with a 12-month review, rather than opt-in options that customers are unaware of. People don’t know what their covered for when dealing with insurance, so product design needs to be easy to understand, fit for purpose and consider the human conditions that sit under it. Simple things like making it easy to claim and not needing documentation to do so.
Business has come a long way since the Black Saturday fires. Approach to products are better, debt collection is now standardised, and business is thinking more broadly about what people need, but there's still a huge opportunity to learn and develop together to support our communities over the long term.