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InPsych 2015 | Vol 37

Psychology in current issues

When disaster is in your neighbourhood, and then on your doorstep

The APS and its Branches respond to recent natural disasters in local areas

Australia and our closest neighbours in the Pacific have been hit hard by one weather disaster after another over the last few months. Over summer, Cyclone Marcia battered Central Queensland and Cyclone Lam wreaked havoc in the Northern Territory, while bushfires raged in South Australia and Western Australia causing widespread damage. As the wild, dangerous weather continued into autumn, we saw Cyclone Olwyn flattening parts of the WA coast around Carnarvon, Cyclone Nathan headed down the Far North Queensland coast, and monster Cyclone Pam caused devastating damage in Vanuatu, ranked the most vulnerable country in the world for natural disasters of one kind or another.

Just as Cyclone Pam was hitting Vanuatu, some of our APS disaster experts and colleagues were attending a high level disaster risk reduction conference in Japan that culminated in the signing off of the next international framework, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015-2030. There, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon talked about how climate change is increasing the threat of extreme weather events, in line with the most recent scientific reports from the CSIRO. Australia needs to lead the way in helping our closest and most vulnerable neighbouring countries to prepare for and recover from such disasters, as well as participating fully in global deals to mitigate climate change and reduce the warming that is contributing to these terrifying events.

In a similar way, APS psychologists are responding to the impact of extreme weather events on our doorstep and in our neighbourhood with support before, during and after disasters. For APS Branch members living in the hot, wet and wild spots in Australia, the extreme weather came even closer to home. This article looks at how different APS Branches and their members responded personally and acted locally when disaster was on their doorstep.

Response to Cyclone Marcia in Central Queensland

On Friday 20 February, the Capricorn Coast and Central Queensland started bracing for category five Cyclone Marcia. Schools and airports closed, and locals started preparing their homes and properties for a massive storm. APS Queensland State Chair Michael John activated APS Branches up and down the coast in the days before the storm, checking in with the Branch Chairs and prompting them to activate their preparedness plans. Branches were encouraged to email members in their regions with a positive reminder regarding APS material on disaster preparedness, and Michael made himself readily available by mobile. APS National Office joined in with some local media that drew attention to a newly produced series of videos about disaster preparedness.

Cyclone Marcia, only the sixth recorded category five cyclone Australia has seen, hit Yeppoon, near Rockhampton, with winds as strong as 285 km/h. More than 1,500 homes were damaged, 100 families left homeless, and thousands of people left without power for up to a week. Smaller towns and regional areas were also badly affected. In one small town, Marmor, there were early reports that all 50 houses in the town were damaged in some way.

APS members in the Central Queensland and Bundaberg-Hervey Bay Region Branches emerged from their own windswept properties to take stock. Many members were without power and hot water for days, but despite these obstacles, Branch leaders were quickly in close communication with each other with email round-robins, checking in, sharing information about damage in their respective regions, and mobilising an early response in the media, with the help of National Office, to offer early recovery advice and psychological first aid to affected communities. ”Best thoughts, hope the coffee is hot” became the email sign‑off from the State Chair, reduced to showering and shaving in his practice like many other members with no power at home in the aftermath.

In the following days, Branch members collected information about needs in the various communities they were connected to through their work and volunteer activities. A connection with the local Red Cross Branch in Rockhampton resulted in a request for APS support for the Red Cross operation in disaster recovery centres and in outreach. First, a call-out was made to the local APS Branch for volunteers able to participate in four-day deployments. This proved to be a difficult request – local members were still dusting themselves down in the cyclone’s aftermath, restoring their own routines, and catching up on their own work after days of disruption. So the APS Disaster Response Network (DRN) was activated out of National Office, this time with more success. Twelve members volunteered to travel to Rockhampton. At the time of writing, four have been deployed to work as workforce welfare officers, travelling to Rockhampton.

The APS DRN volunteers in the field were tasked with providing back-up support for the Red Cross workers in evacuation centres and recovery ‘hubs’ and those doing outreach in other towns and rural areas. They acted as peer supporters for the teams, monitoring indicators of stress and distress among workers, conducting informal wellbeing checks with staff and volunteers, and generally helping out and fitting in wherever they could. Work was extremely varied, ranging from support for Red Cross workers to the occasional trip outback with an Indigenous volunteer to visit an Aboriginal Elder concerned about fallen trees near power lines, and speed-processing a food voucher application for a native animal carer with a baby wallaby strapped to her chest.

Many Red Cross workers acknowledged how much it meant to know an APS volunteer was there, even to just ask them how their day was. Everyone was working very long days and there were quite a few “tired tears” that a few kind words could turn to a smile. There was also very positive feedback from members of the community, who would stop Red Cross workers in public to express how grateful they were for their presence. APS DRN volunteers felt that the deployment was extremely worthwhile and recommended the experience to anyone who could work it into their busy lifestyle.

Professor Kevin Ronan (Chair of the APS Disaster Preparedness and Response Reference Group and himself a Rockhampton local) and Dr Michael John provided regular back-up support to our volunteer psychologists, briefing them ahead of their deployment, checking in with them during their time in the field, even visiting the local Red Cross office to lend a hand alongside the DRN volunteer, as needed. On one visit, Kevin ended up ‘tag counselling’ with the DRN volunteer, Lyn Page, in the back of a storeroom to debrief Red Cross workers freshly returned from an outreach visit while Lyn attended another staff debrief.

At the same time, Red Cross asked for APS support to do independent debriefing with Red Cross workers and volunteers. The role for these psychologists was to organise phone wellbeing checks with people who needed priority debriefs either because they were involved in a critical incident during their deployment, or because of the stressful demands of their particular role. Nearly 30 APS psychologists volunteered to help, and all were given names of people to debrief by phone over a period of three weeks. This work was enormously appreciated by the Red Cross.

Response to Cyclone Lam in the Northern Territory

Just days before Cyclone Marcia hit Queensland, Cyclone Lam made landfall in the Northern Territory, proving to be the worst storm that many older people living in the remote communities on the coast could ever recall experiencing. Many homes in the affected communities of Galiwinku, Gapuwiak, Millingimbi and Ramingining are now uninhabitable, and people’s lives have been enormously impacted.

The APS contacted the Northern Territory Branch to offer support, and also emailed several local members of the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association, given that the places most affected by the cyclone were Aboriginal communities. There was some concern that Cyclone Lam didn’t get as much media coverage because it impacted on remote communities. One Indigenous psychologist contacted by the APS remarked that the relative lack of news coverage of Cyclone Lam compared with that for Cyclone Marcia “makes us think we don’t matter. I’m glad you have emailed and the clean-up has begun”.

In the early days after the cyclone, the Red Cross contacted the APS to ask for some DRN volunteers to help with independent debriefing by phone for Red Cross workers deployed in the NT. Red Cross workers have had a continuous presence in the affected communities, while other agencies have assisted on a fly-in and fly-out basis. They continue to provide support in the Elcho Island evacuation centre with psychological first aid, and are working with the Department of the Chief Minister and the welfare groups in developing a long-term recovery plan.

Apart from our partnership with the Red Cross, the APS hasn’t had a lot of involvement because government services have swung into action. There is a large collaborative response to provide infrastructure support, long-term clean-up and recovery, as well as mental health services.

Response to bushfires in the Adelaide Hills

In the first week of January, a bushfire tore through the Adelaide Hills, reportedly Adelaide’s worst bushfire experience for 30 years. A total of 27 houses were lost, with 132 people requiring treatment from the SA Ambulance Service during the worst of the fires.

Immediately after the fires, the South Australia Branch Committee made contact with the APS to facilitate assistance in organising a local Branch response. No-one in the Branch had any direct prior experience of such an urgent situation, so National Office worked together with the Branch to develop a response to meet the needs they identified in the affected communities.

National Office staff tailored some of the APS recovery resources to the current disaster and sent them out via media releases, bulk emails and social media. On the Branch’s advice, the APS provided a number of government agencies and other local ‘touch points’ with useful resources to assist with psychosocial recovery, including the SA Government, local government, social service and welfare groups, as well as hotels, recreational groups, a local branch of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the country fire service, and the Department of Education and SES. These resources were well received and disseminated further by many of those groups.

A key strategy of the SA Branch was to find ways of reaching out to the public and sharing psychosocial information on recovery, at the same time as promoting the APS, the work of psychologists, and bringing to life the messages that they try to promote in communities during National Psychology Week. To further meet the SA Branch’s needs, the APS developed a series of one page handouts on recovery tips for the months following a disaster, which are now available on the APS website. Local members attended markets and fairs to hand out APS material on recovery. These efforts culminated in a stall at the Kersbrook country fair on 15 March, 2015. This was quite a major undertaking and volunteers staffed the stall throughout the day, with plenty of APS materials to hand out and talk about.

SA Branch Committee member Karen Linehan, who lived in the affected area and was central to the recovery effort, reported back: “I really need to say it was so fabulous and a tremendous experience to get to the fair yesterday and to work with such amazing colleagues and inspirers. I am beyond words for this experience, especially seeing how reaching out and connecting with the local psychology community turned a full-on experience and uncertainty into such positivity and proactivity. While at times our profession appears divided by titles, training, endorsement etc etc, this was truly a united effort in every sense and there is much to be said about that.”

The SA Branch responded in a very personal and local way to the disaster on their doorstep. It took just one person to get the whole ball rolling, then the momentum built with tremendous cooperation and support from all directions. Throughout the process, they kept the flow of information going between their group and National Office so that we could all work well together. Richard Oborn, SA Branch Committee member and leader of the recovery effort, encouraged people with the idea that ‘best is what can be done’ and ‘done is better than perfect’. He then turned to the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego to express his appreciation.

“In Patagonia a local group has a word ‘mamihlapinatapai’. It refers to people sitting around while hoping someone else will do something. Isn’t that a great linguistic tool! So, no mamihlapinatapai around here. Let’s do it ourselves.”

The SA Branch Chair Shelley Rogers responded thus: “I am torn between loving the word, the actions that no-one has waited for, or the wonderful engaged people doing all the actions. I think I'll be greedy and love ‘em all!”

Alongside the local Branch response, the APS has also been involved with the SA Red Cross in psychosocial recovery efforts in the bushfire-affected areas. The Red Cross contacted the APS to partner with them to train local psychologists to run disaster support groups. A disaster support group workshop has been scheduled for early April. APS Disaster Preparedness and Response Reference Group member Rob Gordon, has also been involved in running community information evenings as part of the Red Cross/APS collaboration.

All in all, it’s been a very busy few months for the APS, for the local Branches in bushfire and cyclone affected areas, and for the extraordinarily generous APS Disaster Response Network volunteers who have been on the phones doing wellbeing checks with returned Red Cross workers, or putting aside six days of their own work and family lives to travel to Rockhampton to help out in the field. This work is enormously appreciated by the APS and the Red Cross. When it comes to the APS and disaster response, there’s no mamihlapinatapai around here!

Dr Susie Burke FAPS
Senior psychologist, public interest, environment and disaster response, APS National Office

APS disaster resources

The APS has recently produced a new series of tip sheets to help people learn practical recovery skills like problem solving, dealing with emotional distress, helpful thinking, rebuilding social connections, and participating in positive activities. These can be found online at: www.psychology.org.au/topics/disasters/preparednessandrecovery/#recovery-bushfires

The APS has also produced some short videos on disaster preparedness, which are available on the APS YouTube channel at: www.youtube.com/user/AustPsychSociety

The full suite of APS disaster resources for community members and practitioners, including tip sheets on psychological preparedness and recovery, guidelines for provision of psychological support to people affected by disasters, and guidelines for looking after children affected by disasters, is available on the APS website: www.psychology.org.au/topics/disasters/

Information on the APS Disaster Response Network can be found at: www.psychology.org.au/topics/disasters/drn/


Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on April 2015. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.