We had friends who had to leave the country because they couldn't cope. One of our friends who actually had to carry dead bodies, he couldn't stay in this country at all. He was so severely traumatised.
THIS is one of many harrowing accounts bravely shared by 56 survivors of Victoria's biggest floods and fires in a new research paper that has been two years in the making.
Wangaratta-based Women's Health Goulburn North East, Women's Health in the North and Monash University lead the Long-term Disaster Resilience project, working with 30 women and 26 men.
All participants had survived disasters over the last 50 years, including the 1993 Benalla floods, Black Saturday and the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires.
Twenty-one people in the group lost their homes and 14 nearly lost their lives.
Ruth McGowan, sister of the Indi MP, was among those interviewed.
Ms McGowan was mayor when fires ripped through her hometown of Jindivick in West Gippsland in 2009.
"There's shock, denial, anger and then acceptance," she said.
"The acceptance doesn't mean people are back to where they were on February 6, 2009, the day before the fire.
"It's not helpful to say 'Aren't you over it?, or 'Why aren't you over it?'
"Others need to have patient understanding as people go through the grieving process."
Topping the list of findings from the study was the complexity involved in 'recovery' from disasters, as WHIN chief executive Helen Riseborough explained at the launch of the research on Friday afternoon in Wangaratta.
"We’re aware the word 'resilience' is in itself a contested one," she said.
"It’s use can further drive the expectation that people will get over it and bounce back.
"Perhaps 'endurance' is a more accurate word to use."
Ms Riseborough also touched on the fact "gender stereotypes gain strength in disaster; costing lives, increasing violence against women, and contributing to mental health issues".
As a man named Brad said in the report: I have first-hand knowledge that there are women, wives, on Black Saturday who wanted to leave town and their husband said, ‘No, we’re staying to fight this’. And they stayed to fight and they both died.
The observation that men were cast as 'protectors' and women as 'carers' confirmed previous research by WHGNE, also showing that men felt responsible for neighbours or vulnerable family members - deliberately putting themselves at risk and in some cases driving into the danger zone.
The report added, "two Australia-wide discussions are needed; on the imperative for those choosing to stay in disaster zones to do so only without implicating others, and on safeguarding children in disasters".
Home Affairs Assistant Minister Linda Reynolds said she would look into the recommendations of the report, which include that fire authorities and those who assist with fire planning be educated to recognise gender roles and prioritise all adults leaving children.
"There is a gender difference and you don't want to be having those discussions as the floodwaters are rising and the fire is approaching," she said.
"The first thing families have to do is make sure they have those discussions, and know exactly what they would do as a family when disaster strikes.
"Unfortunately so many families don't, and this is where gender comes into play.
"If you haven't got an agreement, studies show quite often the man wants to stay and defend the house and feels a responsibility to do so, but the women wants to take the kids and up and leave."
These same gender stereotypes harm both women and men, Ms McGowan said.
"The study mentioned the effect of toxic masculinity and how some men did not seek help," she said.
"Maybe it's an Australian thing, but people had this attitude of 'there's always someone worse off than me', even though their whole farm was burnt.
"I knew of a lot of marriages that broke down.
"We know there is a spike in domestic violence following disasters, so when agencies come in after a disaster, they need to be aware that it could be occurring and have resources available."
It's estimated only five per cent of people have a written fire plan, and Ms McGowan said it was crucial families discuss what they would do and be realistic about their chances of survival.
"The advice is very directional about what you need to be able to defend a property - including that you have a certain amount of water and two able bodies to fight the fire," she said.
"On a catastrophic day, you need to get out, because your life is worth more than property and as sad as it is, that is the legacy of the 173 deaths from Black Saturday."
Participants identified how the emotional trauma from the events was added to by feelings of unfairness in grant allocation, and getting nowhere with authorities.
Mike spoke of becoming so frustrated waiting for his insurance payment that he drove to the city and confronted the company.
I said, ‘Pal, here's what I'm going to do, I'm going to start screaming in about 30 seconds and I'm not going to stop screaming until you give me a cheque’. And I started screaming and I screamed and I screamed. I had a cheque within an hour. But that's what it took and it destroyed me.
Researches noted that "those affected by the Benalla floods still grapple with insurance premiums being unaffordable", and recommended that essential services such as water, power and communications be reinstated to individuals as soon as possible after an event, by government-funded services such as the Australian Army.
The Long-term Disaster Resilience Research report also recommended:
- That police review access restrictions after disasters for residents who have livestock, due to the trauma of not being able to get animals to treatment
- A 'Disaster Awareness Day' similar to RUOK be established to raise awareness of the long-term impact of events and the need to plan
- Media reporting be amended to more accurately represent the roles of men and women in events and reduce the reference of 'heroes', 'Australian spirit' and, 'communities pulling together'
- Ensure that post-disaster works such as case managers are trained in community engagement and issues such as domestic violence and gendered dynamics
WHGNE chief executive Susie Reid thanked the participants and congratulated the many people who had contributed to the research.
"There is still much more to be done to better support communities before and after emergencies that empower people to engage with and lead their recovery - findings like those within this report play an important role in moving ahead," she said.
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