In October last year, floodwaters devastated many towns along the Campaspe River with Rochester being one of the hardest hit. More than 90% of properties in the town were inundated.
I work for Partners in Wellbeing, a state-funded role, as a mental health consultant embedded within Be.Bendigo, to provide support to local businesses recovering from the pandemic. When the floods hit, Rob Herbert, my CEO received a call from the president of the Rochester Business Network asking for some help for business. Some conversations and organisational agreements unfolded and a month after the floods, I started travelling to Rochester a day a week, to help with Rochester’s recovery effort. I work alongside small business mentors, assisting with flood recovery grant applications and providing wellbeing support to the Rochester business community.
Despite working more than half my life in mental health and wellbeing, I am a complete newcomer to working in disaster recovery and the last few months have been an incredibly steep learning curve. Thus, I was grateful to be able to attend a town hall community meeting, organised to coincide with the 6-month anniversary of the flood, featuring Dr Rob Gordon as the guest speaker.
Rob Gordon is highly regarded as a Disaster Recovery Specialist. A clinical psychologist and pioneer in this field, going back to his work in communities affected by Ash Wednesday in 1983. He has since supported hundreds of individuals and worked with post-disaster communities impacted by the Port Arthur shooting, Black Saturday, the Christchurch Earthquake, Hurricane Katrina and more.
Rob began by acknowledging the significance of anniversaries and noted that from his experience it is important to use community events to mark these occasions. Recovery from disaster is a long road for everyone and it’s reasonable for Rochester to plan events for the one-year anniversary and further into the future. Any event where the community gather which offers free food is good for recovery he explained.
Rob then elaborated on that which is obvious and common to all disaster-affected communities. That individuals are trying to recover what had been lost. Dealing with insurers, and builders, essentially getting a home back whilst living in a ‘temporary’ situation. The reality is that most of these people had a full life before the disaster – their jobs, family and other responsibilities. Thus, they have taken on another job – their own recovery from disaster which adds a layer of stress that is likely to persist for a long period of time. In his words, they become normal people suffering from a ‘degraded quality of life’.
Rob emphasised the need to include a broad focus on recovery. That is, recognising the importance of not only how quickly you get back into the house, but how you maintain your quality of life along the way. People understandably have a focus on replacing physical losses, but this fierce desire to overcome the trauma distracts them away from what truly makes life valuable.
Rob suggested that those involved in recovery should ask themselves “What did we do before the flood that made life meaningful?” and consider finding ways that we can start doing that now.
I fully support this idea in principle, but I must admit it’s challenging to put this into practice, in my own life, let alone encourage flood victims to follow this guidance. Imagine listening to the distress of a person who is living with their family in a caravan. Their home has been flooded, their parent’s home has been flooded and perhaps their business as well. There are problems with insurance or perhaps no insurance at all and they are seeking financial support. Imagine inviting them to recall that before the flood they used to do an exercise class once a week and suggesting that they find a way to get back to doing something like that.
But Rob was suggesting this is exactly what we should do. Or at least something like this (as in Rochester it’s likely that the building where the exercise class ran, may also have flooded). We need to help people rebuild routines that contribute to their ongoing wellbeing over time. Rob spoke about the need for regular pleasure and leisure. The process of recovery is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. Making personal wellbeing part of our routine so that cellular fatigue is recharged. It makes complete sense, but it requires a big shift in perspective. This is the essence of the wellbeing challenge.
Rob went on to explain that the one factor that predicts how well people and communities recover from a disaster is social capital. Community connection, knowing people, and helping one another. Again, it makes complete sense. The community version of the wellbeing message. Taking time to be with each other. Making sure that while the recovery effort goes on, we stay social, and feel a sense of belonging to a community.
This has also been part of the recovery narrative in Rochester. An ‘event-led-recovery’ where the community still have things they can do and look forward to, whilst the recovery effort is ongoing. Coffee mornings, twilight markets – it’s not rocket science, but common sense. If you were planning a long drive, you’d take rest breaks, hopefully at spots where there is a scenic view. Evidence suggests it will be a long road to recovery for Rochester. Rob estimates some communities take 5 to 7 years. With this understanding, the need to stay connected and look out for one another becomes paramount.
The final point Rob made was to keep in mind, those who as part of the community recovery, are the ones who are doing the extra support work. The on-the-ground incidental or accidental counsellors. Community and business leaders, football and netball coaches, volunteers, hairdressers, bar staff, real estate agents… We all know who they are in our communities. We trust them because they listen, so they hear all the stories.
The need to reach out to support the supporters is critical. They are incredible people, who care about others, but they need to be reminded to care for themselves. This awareness can be brought to light formally through training but more importantly by consistently reminding our ‘instinctive community carers’ to also make time to attend to their own wellbeing. As above, it’s equally challenging to help people to break this habit. When so often their behaviour is driven by a belief that someone else is ‘worse off than them’.
Rob Gordon has a mountain of experience in disaster recovery. He has a range of resources and videos which you can read or watch. But perhaps his clearest messages about recovery are simple. Take time. Don’t rush. Take breaks. Make sure you can appreciate what you do have along the road to recovering what you have lost.
It’s simple in theory but challenging to put into practice when dealing with incredible despair and distress. Anger and frustration. Sadness and grief. But there are some truths that resonate with this simple wisdom. I have learnt that I can’t live another person’s experience of recovery nor force them to attend to their own wellbeing.
So, I visit business owners or staff, and hear stories about the flood, their business, how it was affected, what they are doing to recover and how they ‘cope’. Sometimes I spend time at a community event just chatting with a local, learning about ‘life in Rochester after the flood’. The simple act of asking how someone is going, listening to their story and acknowledging their experience may be enough. At this moment, six months into the journey in Rochester, this just might be what recovery from disaster looks like.
Partners in Wellbeing is a free service for small businesses offering Financial Counselling, Business Advice and Wellbeing Support
1300 375 330