How long is recovery?

If I had a dollar for every time I was asked this, I would be rich. Actually I wouldn’t be rich, because the answer is disappointing. “It depends” usually is the answer. Or “ we can’t say” To which the riposte comes “But surely someone knows” and we shake our heads, sadly and say. It’s not that simple…

I recently heard a general in Queensland proudly say recovery will be done in two years, because that’s what we have funding for. Talking with survivors of Black Saturday around the 5 year mark, many said that they had just begun. Our evidence from the Beyond Bushfires  study supports this, and has recommended recovery programs be in place for at least 5 years. I have seen government officials shift uncomfortably when the study leader, Lisa Gibbs mentions this. Recent news stories on the 10 year anniversary of events as diverse as the Kerang Train Crash, and the NSW East Coast Low, suggest that many are still not recovered. And listening to the frail voices of survivors of the Bethnal Green Tube Disaster in 1943 or Aberfan Tailing Dams Disaster in 1966, suggest that a lifetime on, recovery may not be there.

My boss, Andrew Coghlan, tells the story of the Canberra Bushfires Taskforce, and taskforce members calculating “400 homes, 4 months to rebuild a house, xx builders in Canberra, we’ll have it done by September” He was pooh poohed when he suggested that it wasn’t that simple (they we viewing it as a project management task). But then the voice of the community member rang through. ”Hang, he’s onto something, I know I am certainly not ready to rebuild”

Part of the challenge lies in how we frame the disaster. The media, often looking for the gotcha moment, latch onto rebuild rates. “What do you mean, minister, that only 10% of people have rebuilt, this is outrageous, and cues an interview with a person with an axe to grind, “we can’t rebuild because…” A recovery manager somewhere will not be having a good sleep. And as I mentioned in previous posts, we do not as a society frame recovery reaslistically, because we have no conception of it at all.

Not being able to give a simple answer is problematic, the challenge lies in the complexity of disaster impacts. We need to apply systems thinking to recovery, but invariably we don’t. We apply linear approaches and think of recovery as a singular outcome. As there are many facets to the impacts, there are many outcomes. Are you recovered when your house is rebuilt, but you are still displaying PTSD? Are you recovered when you have an absence of PTSD symptoms, but you are not working? Are you recovered when your bank balance looks similar to pre disaster, but you are living in temporary accommodation, kilometres from your networks? Are you recovered when your relationship survives, but your children are struggling at school. It’s not straight forward, and there is no one measure of recovery.

IF we break our leg, then by and large, after six weeks of crutches and frustration, we’ll be walking again, and in 2 years the leg will be as good as gold. But if we broke ribs and punctured a lung, and developed pneumonia, or had a staph infection, it becomes much harder to say when we are recovered. “yeah, the legs better, but I can’t exercise, so it’s really wasted away.” Its complex.

The Australian New Zealand School of Government have done some impressive work on developing a monitoring and evaluation framework for recovery. I opened it with trepidation, fearing it would be about efficient payment of grants (which is what governments seem to think is a measure of success…until you pay too many of them!). It wasn’t, it recognised the complexity of the impacts, and attempted to address them with outcome measures.

Even if we do know what the outcomes are, the data is just not collected, or if it is its not available, as the Australian Business Roundtable found with its second report. Maybe its better to ask a few sentinel questions of key people. How’s risk taking behaviour round here?” of the local copper, or “ What’s absenteeism like?” of the local principal, or “ How full’s your waiting room?” of the GP, or “How’s business?” Of the local traders. These might guide further investigation.

When I think of recovery, and what it means to be recovered, I always come back to the magnificent Anne Leadbeater. “Recovery is when you lead the life you value living”  This has got me thinking, perhaps a “measure” of recovery is “Satisfaction with Life” scales or measures. These are measure of subjective feelings about various topics, and answers the question “How’s life” One most notable is the OECD Better Life Index” We have included life satisfaction measures in the Beyond Bushfires surveys, and these are turning up some interesting results. If we ask people how they reckon they are doing, then perhaps this is a measure of recovery, and this would take into account all the different outcomes. And so perhaps one day,  the interview might run like this, So Minister, how is recovery going in Xville.”Well Alan/Jon/Neil, we’re tracking people telling us how they are doing, through this measure called life satisfaction, and we are seeing improvements over time. It’s a slow process, as you would well know, but people are telling us, its getting better”

How long is recovery? How soon is now?

3 thoughts on “How long is recovery?

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