Measuring the ‘battler’ spirit after the Queensland floods

fairfield
Nicole George cleans her flooded house. Joe Watson

My family has just come home from a barbeque, the second we’ve attended this weekend. That’s been quite a common occurrence for us in the last couple of months. Our house in Fairfield, a residential suburb on the banks of the Brisbane River, was one of the many that was flooded in mid-January this year.

Interstate at the time, and newcomers to Brisbane from Canberra, we had only 18 months experience of what a “big wet” in Queensland can dish out. Needless to say we were caught out, and, like many in our neighbourhood, lost most of our possessions in an inundation that reached up to head height in the second level of our home.

There’s no underestimating what it feels like to see almost everything you own - furniture, clothing, books, kids toys, kitchen appliances, even the internal walls and fittings of your house - turned to muddy brown filth, carted out your front door and piled wildly on the side of the road awaiting disposal.

In those early days it felt like the receding flood waters had taken with them the sense of security and achievement we had felt in establishing a much loved family dwelling.

Yet those feelings of insecurity were diminished by the tremendous community support we were also shown at that time. Little could have prepared me for the way local church organisations, groups of parents from my daughter’s local state school, sporting associations, local community groups and networks of current and former Fairfield residents came to our aid in the immediate aftermath of the flood.

Knowing that we are part of a community that has shown us hospitality and immense generosity and that continues to watch over us as the post-flood weeks turn into months has helped make the uncertain and halting nature of my own family’s flood recovery much more bearable than it otherwise might be.

This experience has sparked my academic interest in community resilience. Increasingly, policy-makers and scholars are talking about the capacities entire communities display as they attempt to “bounce back” from crises such as Queensland’s floods.

Yet the notion of resilience in this context remains slippery.

It has been invoked to explain a community’s ability to learn from past disasters and better prepare for future ones. It has also been used to describe a community’s collective ability to adapt to the challenges it faces as disaster occurs, or to describe its capacity to rebuild in the wake of crisis.

Underpinning these various perspectives on resilience is that idea that “grass roots” derived disaster response initiatives have an inherent value because they are developed in close proximity to disaster-affected people and reflect a localised understanding of levels of need.

Researcher Robert Putnam’s work on the importance of civic engagement has helped shape this debate.

Putnam argues that there are significant economic, political and developmental benefits in societies where all individuals feel connected by coming together in strong social groups and networks.

However, others argue this faith in a civil society where all citizens participate in times of crisis, is an ideal that ignores more complicated community realities of economic and social marginalisation, and in fact may reinforce these negatives.

Importantly, it may relieve the state of its welfare responsibilities and put the onus back on community organisations to look after themselves.

If we place a heavy emphasis on the role that community groups can play in disaster recovery, for example, are we ultimately legitimising a scenario where the state assumes only a minimal or short-term responsibility for the assistance of disaster-affected communities?

These questions are particularly relevant to the research program I am currently coordinating on community resilience in Fairfield and in Goodna, a suburb in the Brisbane-Ipswich corridor which was also seriously inundated in January.

Two teams of final year development studies students will work with local organisations in these settings to understand their responses to this event.

We are particularly interested in mapping the types of community organisations which have been involved in flood recovery in both these locations, how the level and nature of need in the community has been determined by these groups, and the extent to which groups which may exist at the margins - the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed or local youth - have been involved in these community-driven efforts.

The research project will also examine whether community flood assistance programs have been able to fill the gaps evident in state disaster response management. This is a particularly pressing concern for Goodna residents.

Local observers have been critical of relief efforts in the area and how they compare to more affluent areas of Brisbane, alleging that Goodna has been offered little in the way of ongoing state or council assisted flood recovery.

It has been suggested that whatever has been achieved in Goodna has been almost solely as a result of local energies. This scenario poses important questions about the limits of community resilience in contexts where the state has a diminished visibility.

Is it too much to expect that community groups can take a leading role in long-term disaster recovery if their work is unsupported by state agencies?

Through my personal experience of the Queensland floods I have learnt first-hand the importance of community. The feeling that we are connected to the people around us, that we share the same challenges and that we can draw on each other for assistance has enabled my family and I to bear up to all the mixed emotions of the last couple of months.

There is something comforting and highly appealing about the notion of resilient community and it surely makes sense that good should come from strengthening resilience in disaster prone settings.

Yet this should not blind us to the practical challenges or broader political consequences that may accrue from such efforts.

The research I am currently coordinating in this area will go some way to demonstrating the complex workings of ‘actually existing’ community as we encounter it in South East Queensland.

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