The experiences of Bega Valley Shire residents impacted by severe droughts, multiple fires and the COVID-19 pandemic have been used to inform the development of new resources to be used across NSW to help other communities recover from natural disasters.
Representatives of neighbourhood centres, local charity groups and volunteer organisations from throughout the Bega Valley Shire have been interviewed as part of a ground-breaking report into community resilience, wellbeing and recovery sponsored by the Mental Health Commission of NSW.
The study, funded by the Mental Health Commission of NSW in collaboration with the NSW Council of Social Service (NCOSS) and the University of Canberra, is one of the first of its kind to examine the role played by local people and community sector organisations in disaster recovery, wellbeing and resilience and involved residents from five NSW local government areas – the Bega Valley, Snowy Monaro, Forbes, the Blue Mountains and Wentworth.
Mental Health Commissioner of NSW Ms Catherine Lourey said the findings highlight the importance of local organisations and people in both emergency response and long-term resilience in the Bega Valley.
“Locals know their communities and needs better than anyone,” said Ms Lourey. “They are there for the long haul, and long after the government agencies and big relief organisations and charities leave town after a disaster, and they can identify people in need who have not put their hand up for help.”
Ms Lourey said the Bega Valley has a long list of highly valued organisations and people who work hard to service residents during disasters. These include Rotary, the Community Development Network, Social Justice Advocates, the Rural Fire Service, the local Red Cross, mental health workers, specialist counsellors and vital community communications services from the local ABC.
However, the community identified that the region also faces several critical challenges that limit efforts for recovery from natural disasters, including timely access to mental health support for traumatised adults and children, and funding assistance that ended before post-disaster needs became apparent, often long after the event.
The Community Resilience, Wellbeing and Recovery Project Insights Report released this week identifies seven key factors in disaster recovery and resilience for the Bega Valley.
These key factors include:
- Recognition of the heavy load shouldered by volunteers who act as “accidental counsellors” during consecutive disasters.
- Recognition that recovery extends well beyond the immediate aftermath and that rural people can be slow to ask for help.
- Development of a ‘one-stop shop’ system for collecting information from trauma victims so they don’t need to recount their story multiple times to different organisations.
The Bega Valley experienced regular and sometimes overlapping natural disasters in recent years, including severe drought, a major fire in 2018 in and around Tathra, the Black Summer fires in 2019-20 and floods in mid-2020 as well as the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that happened just as recovery from the Black Summer fires got underway.
“The lessons from the experiences of the Bega Valley over the past few years have helped create resources that enable other local community groups and leaders to better co-ordinate with larger, out-of-area service providers during natural disasters to produce better outcomes,” Ms Lourey said.
These community resources comprise a guide and workbook for community-based organisations to help identify their role in disaster recovery and community resilience, as well as planning and preparation, and a guide for funders, large organisations and others seeking to support local organisations during disasters.
“The impacts of these disasters can last for years and what we know is that many don’t seek help immediately,” Ms Lourey said.
“That’s when local knowledge can play a vital role after other sources of help may have moved on. We have heatwaves, floods, droughts, locust, and mice plagues as well as the financial and emotional impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, with too little time to recover before the next disaster happens.
“Many participants reported funding assistance ended too soon, with post disaster needs and mental health issues often not becoming apparent for 12 to 18 months.
“For many people, recovery is something that doesn’t end. It’s a process that extends sometimes for years after a disaster and can be prolonged by successive disasters, all of which impact resilience and wellbeing in a community.”
NCOSS CEO Joanna Quilty said “As we rebuild from these events and prepare for an uncertain future, it’s crucial we learn from them and strengthen how we respond, which is exactly what these resources will help local services do.”
“These resources will strengthen the response of the NGO sector – helping to build resilience before a crisis and better respond after one.”
New funding has been made available to disaster-affected communities for specific projects since this report was finalised in October 2021.
The report relating to the experiences of the Bega Valley is available at:
The full report and resources for communities and non-local organisations are available at:
If you have been impacted by a natural disaster, you may be eligible for Disaster relief assistance and support from the NSW Government. Visit https://www.nsw.gov.au/disaster-recovery/disaster-relief-and-support
For interviews and further information please call Michael Sheather (Media Advisor, Mental Health Commission of New South Wales) on 0408 278 451.