Corinna Elaine, a 2013 Dunalley bushfire victim, discusses how to best support traumatised fire-affected communities.
With so many people stepping up in this time of great devastation to support those impacted by bushfires, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is one voice that has requested people stop sending items – such as food and clothing – for the bushfire victims. He has asked for money to be sent instead. This seems to have raised the ire of some.
After being evacuated in 2013 from the horrific Dunalley bushfire and returning to live in the communities that were fire-affected, I’d like to explain why in this situation, cash is king. Not toys (though they will still be appreciated) not food (though it will still be needed), not clothing (again, still necessary) and not household items (since people may not even have a house in which to store them).
Because a brush with something as devasting as fire has an inestimable amount of trauma linked to it, the needs and emotional responses of victims are going to complex and varied. Even so, there are some very fundamental human-requirements: community, houses, families, basic possessions. They are the anchor points that give us a feeling of identity and help us "belong". What happens when these are gone? How can we re-tether?
People watching the news or talking to a victim will tend to see the very obvious emotions of loss being expressed. To the bystander this may seem straightforward expression — it is not. The sense of loss isn’t just about the loss of things (a house and contents) nor even about the loss of a lifetime of memories — though this is encompassed as well. One of the most significant feelings is the loss of autonomy. The loss of the ability to care for oneself and the family group. Gifts of clothing and food absolutely help with the loss of necessary items, but they are not able to adequately salve the feelings of loss of oneself. The gift of money allows a choice: the choice in replacing what the victims consider to be the most important things.
One family I know lost their property and transport vehicles, and came close to losing the lives of their children and grandparents in the Dunalley catastrophe. The shattered family were rehoused in a different community and showered with gifts. To this day, the selfless compassion that was extended to them fills them with gratitude.
Loads of boxes and food were brought to the door of their new shelter. But they had just experienced a life-changing event so no one was sleeping in their household. The children, who had fled with their grandparents in the face of the maelstrom, were having nightmares; the parents too. Cortisol and adrenaline continued to course through their bodies like electric shocks. They were unable to rest or to think clearly. Everything was unfamiliar in their accommodation and the community they’d landed in.
Here’s when the generosity, though well-meant, takes a turn. Instead of having the things they needed at hand, they had to use their already wearied brains and depleted energy to shift through mounds of donations. Every single item they needed required a search. When the three-year-old needed a t-shirt, a box by box search was required, by an already bone-weary parent. Shifting through boxes of shoes to find the right sizes; boxes of second-hand kitchen items to find a breadboard. Was there shampoo anywhere? The food was (more often, than not) absolutely delicious, but was it going to be okay for their daughter, who needed gluten-free meals?
Right here, the gift of money would have made the entire process so much easier. A trip to the shops could have provided the children with all their clothing requirements, as well as a remedy to the shoe-sizing issues, and, enabled the purchase of suitable foods to stock the kitchen for the diet-restricted child.
All this potentially achieved in the same amount of time it took to rummage for one t-shirt. I know, I was there helping to sort all the shoes.
Also, at the same time, the cash would have helped to address the overwhelming sense of loss of control over their situation. It would have given the family a sliver of control over their lives through the very simple act of having a choice in what they wore and ate, and the parents a sense of being able to provide for their children once again.
Some of the people who donate items may not have the cash to give. If this is the case, there’s no need to feel you can’t help out in other ways. Selling the items that would’ve been donated and offering the proceeds to reputable charities can be given instead.
For the people who were insured, it took time for money to be made available; for those who weren’t, they and their children were no less deserving of help.
My house didn’t burn but I was evacuated to the wharf in Hobart with my distressed daughter. We made our way to a tent set up for evacuees. It was there I found out about the financial assistance available for us. Thankfully, I was able to stay with friends until it was safe to return (roughly a week later). During that time of dislocation, the financial assistance provided meant us being able to buy food, clean underwear and clothing for our extended stay. And in this simple act of purchase, we felt like less of a burden — not completely reliant on others. A small semblance of an expression of self.
Corinna Elaine is a journalist.
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