The single greatest problem we as a nation have in confronting disasters is that we define them too narrowly. We are not alone in this. It is a common Western problem.
Disasters are seen as falling into two categories—natural and man-made. Both have the same fundamentals. They are sudden, jarring forces that take lives and leave communities reeling with their physically destructive force.
In terms of any immediate appreciation, floods and fires are the most obvious of the natural disasters, droughts less so because of their longer lead-up time and more diffused impact. Wars are the most obvious of the man-made disasters although any associated political discourse can and often does seriously distort our appreciation of them.
The common point is that a natural disaster is terribly obvious. It physically slams into an area destroying just about everything in its path—physical infrastructure, economic livelihoods, human life.
As imperfect as we may be, Australia is well equipped to respond in the early stages to such phenomena. First responders—the military, police, ambulance, and emergency services—are for the most part well resourced, well led and well coordinated.
At the back end, coronial enquiries and the occasional royal commission conduct formal reviews that enable some genuine soul searching and a few lessons to be learned. Tragically, they also lead to a great loss of knowledge when some highly experienced emergency leaders are blamed and sacked for problems either beyond their control or not systemically foreseeable before the disaster.
The main thing is that, while we don’t usually recognise it, we in Australia are fortunate to have some of the best and strongest disaster response systems in the world. At least we are in terms of the narrow, popular definition of a disaster as a freak event that gives limited segments of our community a sudden whack across the collective face from time to time. When disaster strikes, the systems roll out in response until the emergency passes.
But what if we define disasters more generally as any situation that may or does overwhelm a group or community that it is unable to respond or cope without direct external assistance? This would free the concept of disasters from the restriction of “suddenness”, association with a particular “event” or relation to any immediate physical impact.
Adding the word “may” also gives disaster preparedness its rightful place at the front end of any disaster management practices instead of the back end where first-responders get the greatest attention and, therefore, largest resources. And it forces us to confront “issues” like climate change more directly. If there’s a risk, we should be doing something about it, and doing it now, instead of waiting for the disaster to happen some time later; and doing it with the same intensity and urgency demanded by effective disaster management.
This inevitably requires a reallocation of resources but it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to disaster management. Prevention is better than cure.
This is the second article in a series entitled The Disaster Blogs.
Image credit: Amanda Bowen