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Why the best response to disaster is to nurture a community of first responders

When floodwaters devastated communities of the Northern Rivers in early 2022, five State Emergency Service stations were inundated. 

In Australia there is an overreliance on triple zero and the cavalry coming when something happens… We need to change that culture. 

Jean Renouf, Founder and Chair, Plan C

The shocking images beamed around the nation in 2022 of brown floodwater lapping on tin roofs in the Northern Rivers and people scrambling for safety and shelter are etched in the minds of many. 

In a land of drought and flooding rains, Australians are accustomed to extreme weather. But the floods of 2022 were “far beyond” what people of the Northern Rivers had ever experienced and “beyond what most thought was possible,” said Nerida Buckley, Director of Resilience and Adaptation with the NSW Reconstruction Authority. 

Nerida moderated a panel discussion of disaster recovery and community resilience experts at the AdaptNSW 2023 Forum. 

Nine Australians lost their lives in the Northern Rivers floods of 2022. More than 14,630 homes were damaged or destroyed, and more than 8,400 people were deployed to the area to support recovery and repair efforts. The damages bill is currently estimated at around $2.7 billion – and rising. 

In the aftermath, people in the Northern Rivers community have begun to reassess how they live – and that means rethinking everything from the way homes are built and where, to how knowledge is shared. 

The 2022 floods weren't the first disasters to strike the Northern Rivers region in recent times. The Black Summer bushfires in 2020 and severe flooding in Lismore in 2017 were still fresh in many people's memories. 

Following the Black Summer Bushfires of 2019 and 2020, the Bushfire Royal Commission served up a shocking truth. The scale of some disasters is so great that “emergency management personnel do not, and never will, have the capability and capacity to solve the emergency threat for every individual at risk,” the Commission warned. 

This was a “painful realisation” for the communities of the Northern Rivers when their own SES first responders were overwhelmed, panellist Jamie Simmonds noted. “There cannot be a fire truck in front of every house.” The strategic response, therefore, is to create a “community of first responders”.  

From devastation to innovation 

Jamie is a Director of BTS Consulting and an internationally respected expert in the field of managed retreat who oversaw the relocation of Grantham following deadly floods in 2011.  

The “Grantham Land Swap” is considered one of the world’s most successful examples of managed retreat and shows how Australia can rebuild resilient communities in a changing climate. 

With Grantham at risk of being wiped off the map, the local council, government authorities and the community came together in a coordinated effort to secure its survival.  

Within a year, and at a cost of $30 million, 100 families had been relocated to new homes on higher ground. Residents traded in their flood-affected land – which was essentially worthless – to the local council in exchange for a new hillside block. Some chose to stay, and sadly dozens of those properties were inundated again in 2022. 

The success of the Grantham project revealed three core lessons, Jamie told the AdaptNSW Forum audience. The first is of leadership with a clear vision. “Someone has to drive the bus.” The second is the importance of quick decision making, as the window in which to act is narrow and requires “thoughtful but rapid” reactions. And the third lesson is that “whatever you do it has to be based on what the community needs”. 

Success starts by understanding the “journey of an individual”. A land swap may seem logical to a government authority, but not to a 75-year-old mortgage holder who is residing in her “forever home”. We must look through the lens of the human behind the home we are asking them to leave, he said. 

Dan Etheridge agreed. A Director of Living Lab Northern Rivers, Dan’s experience includes supporting resident-driven recovery and rebuilding programs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He said planning and preparedness for disasters require people to make “fundamental changes” to the life they have known and helping people to make that mental leap requires a “very different sets of conversations in the community”. 

People did the right thing and moved all their stuff… and it’s gone. So, their idea of what could happen has changed. It's not about moving furniture; it's about a fundamental reimagining of life. 

Dan Etheridge, Director, Living Lab Northern Rivers 

Charting a new course 

How do we start a new national conversation that helps people “live well” in the century of the climate crisis? 

This question keeps Jean Renouf up at night. Jean is the founder and chair of Plan C – a community-based registered charity with a mission to build the resilience and regenerative capacities of Northern Rivers communities. A lecturer at Southern Cross University and a firefighter with Fire and Rescue NSW, Jean spent 15 years as an international aid worker in war zones and natural disasters. 

Emergency services personnel are taught that the best way to keep people safe is to “exclude them from the area,” Jean observed. But in an unfolding disaster of the magnitude of the Northern Rivers floods, everyone is affected and “every hand is welcome”. It's a different model of response. 

Australians must move away from their “overreliance on triple zero,” Jean added. “In Japan and California everyone learns what to do in anticipation of earthquakes. We don't, in Australia, know what to do in anticipation of all the disruptions that can affect us. We need to change that culture.” 

Plan C provides five-day free training sessions where people learn skills in emergency communications, self-care to psychological first aid. The feedback from participants is that the training “turns fear into empowerment and brings people together”. 

2023 Forum - Day 1 - Plenary morning session

AdaptNSW 2023 Forum

The 2023 AdaptNSW Forum, ‘navigating uncertainty together', attracted 350-plus attendees who heard from more than 85 presenters across 30 breakout, panel, workshop and keynote sessions in December 2023. Check out the program highlights and watch recordings of key sessions.