One evening six years ago I went to meet a small group of locals in a north Brisbane suburb who were affected by an unusual storm. Many remember the event as The Gap storms and I think they are officially known as the Brisbane North storms.
Residents of the area I visited had organised a small gathering, in fact so small I hesitate to use the word ‘gathering’. Nevertheless, the residents had welcomed me to present a small donation to me as the head of a not for profit organisation I had started to assist in disaster response. We were one of a number of organisations that helped people affected by the storm. So far there’s nothing really special about this story. But the twist, for me at least, was some insight I gained during that quiet evening. You see my hosts had preferred to give the donation to someone else. I, or should I say our organisation, was the ‘last cab off the rank’ and these good people had hoped to give the donation to any one of several larger or better known charities who had assisted in this disaster stricken area. I know this because they were honest and explained it to me. They did not mean any disrespect to me or our organisation. It was just the simple fact of their intentions. I was, and still am, comfortable with that. Especially since we put the donation to good use to further develop a service that helps people following disasters.
Now, the main thing about my insight was not the above mentioned circumstance, but another slightly uncomfortable fact they shared with me while we drank coffee in a circle with no table to divide us. They felt forgotten, abandoned and ignored. Their street was not in The Gap, the suburb that was well covered by the mainstream media. They said it themselves; because their street was in a less affluent postcode the silence was deafening. So maybe their donation was an attempt to get their voice heard. They were also affected but it seemed that help was not as forthcoming to them as to their better-off neighbours.
That episode never left me. Over the years I have mentioned it in meetings, discussions and conversations which were all part of the larger narrative of disaster resilience building. I can recall every time that the response was something along the lines of ‘oh well, that’s how it is’. Ever since I have been bothered by one question: are we developing disaster resilience for the whole of society? I have detected a similar undercurrent of what may be benign negligence (discrimination may be a more apt term but I am not willing to admit to it yet) in other parts of the country. I saw signs of it in Central Queensland (Australia) with aboriginal people. I saw similar things in North Queensland in relation to one of the local CALD groups. In all cases the events were different and significant.
Over the years as my work in the area of disaster recovery matured, and even more so in disaster resilience building in a variety of capacities, I noted a semblance of a pattern emerging; a pattern that reflects a genuine lack of understanding as to what resilience really is about. It simply does not work if inclusiveness is not the guiding principle. It does not work because the sense of injustice that a lack of inclusiveness brings can cost the entire enterprise dearly. Resilience needs ‘whole-of-system’ support, be it ecological, social, technological, political or economic. The system and process has to be all encompassing and based on genuine and multifaceted collaboration.
I am convinced that I am not alone in my observations. There must be more people who realise that the past decade has shown that natural disasters tend to impact the disadvantaged slightly more than others who have the means to bear the disruption with more grit and recover to the point where they can continue to grow, flourish and face the future (including future disruptions) with more courage and confidence. The capacity to live in such a way alone has to be the centrepiece of any political or economic platform that is ingrained into the policy and practice of disaster resilience building. Anything short of that is a populist excuse designed to ignore the dangers of social divisions that threaten every society, regardless of their material riches.
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