10 things to know about life in a disaster

Jude Benton

Jude Benton and the Bishop

Jude Benton with Bishop Richard Treloar

This article has been published in The Melbourne Anglican, The Gippsland Anglican and Crosslight and is republished here with permission

BCA supports Jude Benton the Priest in Charge, the Cooperating Parish of Croajingolong – who was present and continued working through the Mallacoota / Cann River bushfires.  

10 things I wish others knew about crisis before trying to offer support...  Please, if you’ve done any of these after a crisis don’t feel guilty. I have too… but this is what I’ve learned this year, and so I pass it on for next time there’s a crisis.

1. People in crisis are unable to process information properly

Their brains are running on high adrenaline which causes a narrowing of vision/ understanding to what is essential for survival right now. Complex offers of assistance, or requests for information beyond the essentials are difficult to process. Almost everything non-essential will be forgotten.

2. The basic requirements for normal life may not be re-established for some time

After the fire we had no power at home for 18 days. That means only a gas hob to cook on, using torches at night, fridge/freezer defrosting, no washing machine, no hot shower, no ability to charge a phone/computer at home. We also had to wear masks down the street, the roads were closed, the supermarket was running low, the smell of smoke was everywhere, and our garage and backyard were a burnt and twisted pile of wreckage..... yet we both continued to work dawn till dusk.

3. Admin is not a priority for the first few weeks

Adrenaline calls for action, not sitting doing admin. On top of this there are only two mobile networks in Mallacoota, one crashed for three weeks – that’s the one my iPad usually uses for emails. Without power at home I needed to go to the church to power the laptop (after power was re-established there about day five) and use a weak mobile hotspot to download messages. The first time I logged on it took over 24hrs to download an inbox full of emails.

4. Keep the phone-line clear.

Imagine a parallel relationship between the length of time you’ve known the person plus how close your relationship is, and then translate that into how long it should be before you phone them. My phone rang constantly the first four weeks, with many calls from people I didn’t know. Each phone call was exhausting, and as I was on one call the message bank will fill up with more to respond to. I had no energy left for calling parishioners or even my family/friends for support. As mentioned before charging a mobile was an effort, it turns out those old corded landlines are a Godsend in an emergency! A month on the person will be more appreciative of your call than in the first few days or weeks.

5. Keep contact during business hours

Do you enjoy being rung by strangers, about work issues, at home at 9pm on a Saturday night? No – neither does the exhausted disaster worker. It wasn’t uncommon for phone calls to start at 8am and finish late in the evening. People in disaster need rest, time to recover, and opportunity to communicate with family and friends. Be professional and keep their evenings free.

6. Give money not goods

Australia is a wealthy country, with a government and organisations that provide essential food, toiletries etc for relief in the immediate period after a disaster............................... then a second disaster happens as well-meaning people deliver more and more food, clothing and goods that are unnecessary and require exhausted volunteers to spend hours sorting and even re-distributing to other communities. IF you are going to give goods ASK first what is required (noting points #4 & #5) and ensure that EVERYTHING is good quality before it is sent. The best clothing delivery we had was all good quality, washed, bagged into categories and labelled: ie women’s summer tops size 8-12.

7. Give money with an open-hand

A common phone call went like this “I want to give you money, but I want it to be used for XYZ, and I want you to ensure that the right people get it...” If you choose to give, trust the person/organisation you give to, to use it wisely. Requests like the above added considerable unnecessary stress, and to me undermined what the church’s role is in a disaster – to be there for all people. We are truly grateful to those who gave generously and with open-hands as this allowed us to ensure that the church’s ministry could be maintained through this period as well as using funds to bless the community for the long-term, rather than just the immediate when there were multiple other agencies available for instant money.

8. Give time for decision making, for recovery is a marathon not a sprint

Imagine walking through a swamp – that’s how a post-crisis brain operates. It takes 3-6 months before the post-adrenaline exhaustion even begins to wear off and for normal creativity and reasoning to be re-established. Offers of assistance may initially be rejected as it seemed too complicated, but later on the bits of the jigsaw fit together and the offer will be accepted. Be patient. Give space and allow for changes of mind.

Four months in and we’re only just beginning to work out what a longer-term plan is (or at least we were until COVID-19 happened). This is the time where we need all the ethereal offers of help to become reality. This is the time for other organisations and unknown people to call and offer genuine support and longer-term partnership. If your initial call was ignored in the first month or so, try again now that people have more ability to look ahead rather than just being overwhelmed by the immediate circumstances.

9. Prayer is powerful, pray for the people

The expression “held in the prayers of the people” was very true to me over the immediate fire response. I felt out of my depth, exhausted, and so busy prayer was illusive, yet in all this I felt closer to God and held in the prayers of others that I’ve ever felt before. Not sure what to pray – pray for wisdom, health, energy, compassion and courage to keep going.

10. Ask before rushing in to visit with a group.

A traumatised community is a sensitive and emotional being. Due to people being evacuated and slowly returning it took close to two months before the whole church congregation had re-grouped. Well-meaning people wanted to rush in with groups and ‘cheer us up’ but we needed space and time to be alone, to re-live and re-tell the stories, and to grieve together. Wait three to four months before you begin to talk about bringing a group to a disaster zone, and six plus months before you actually do it… and when you come, don’t take photos of the damage or the locals will chase you with pitch-forks.