The Bigger They Are

One of the things I find I am often doing is trying to temper the way people describe disasters. I hear often that Black Saturday was Australia’s biggest disaster. I wonder, by what “measure” (and measurement is problematic). If you take a purely simplistic numbers perspective, it doesn’t stack up. The 173 tragic deaths doesn’t compare to Cyclone Mahina in 1900 with over 400 deaths. The 2200 houses lost don’t compare to Darwin with Cyclone Tracy or the Queensland floods. The economic cost is not comparable to the Queensland Floods or even the Sydney Hailstorms from a decade ago.  With Cyclone Tracy, we lost a whole capital city.

Why do we need to describe these in terms of worst ever, biggest ever, I wonder? It is of little help to the people affected. It neither enhances nor diminishes their experience. Many people I met or worked with hated the term “Black Saturday” or “Bali” they felt it depersonalised their own experience, that they were now something that was publicly owned, and they could no longer grieve privately. We need to be careful how we label these events. The people we work with, to support, need us not to get caught up in the rhetoric, in the drama. They need someone with the context, and perspective. This doesn’t mean you don’t have compassion, just perspective.

I understand this is how the media frames disasters, as they need the hook to get and keep the viewer/reader/listener’s interest. We talk about the media becoming more sensationalised, yet if you look back at Ash Wednesday or Cyclone Tracy media reports, they were equally sensationalist, albeit with less media, and a slower new cycle. Interestingly I did some research on the 1934 Melbourne  floods (where 2/3 of Melbourne was under water, and 34 people on a similar “scale” as the Brisbane floods), looking in the Age for news reports. Surprisingly, not only was it not the front page, but the story was way back on page 8 or so!

I am surprised though, when people in the “industry” describe Black Saturday in these terms. We should know better. We should be able to put things into context, focus less on the label and the scale, and more on the impact. Because for people, their losses individually catastrophic. This is the level that matters, as this is where the impacts of disaster play out, personally. Of course, as you scale up, the resources required are greater, and those available, diminish (although there is a view that in the really big ones, resources flow, people donate, agencies free up waiting lists, politicians say, whatever it takes…think ). And regardless of whether you lose your home in a single house fire or Black Saturday, the end result is, this is what you need to deal with, personally.

But it is also interesting that we have this tension within the industry. “THat’s not a disaster” as if something needs to be “big enough” so that a big red button can be pushed, and it will all be OK. The big red button is generally a funding decision, so doesn’t necessarily help people then and there. THe public seems to think that the Big Red Button means sending in the army. But the truth be known, the army’s capabilities are a limited and not long term.

One of the more useful things I felt I could bring to the bereavement support group that I helped co-facilitate was context. “This is what we saw with the Bali Bombings” was something I often said. And this was reassuring, as it meant that they weren’t alone, that other people had been on a similar journey. People believe their situation is abnormal, and the relief that they have when they realise that other people are experiencing or have experienced the same thing, is palpable. “You mean, I’m not going crazy” is something I have heard time and time again. No, it is normal, and it will take time.

An oldie, but a goodie

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