Emerald Messenger

It’s taken me a long while to sit and write and I’ll be honest, it’s mainly because I am exhausted. I am writing this – it seems like three words at a time – in between questions about how to finish the comprehension activities from my primary school aged kids while juggling a new puppy that we decided to get to support our family after the fires, amongst work and everything else thrown into this world at the moment.

I look outside and our yard is still full of mess, burnt metal, trees and shrubs, with kikuyu and cape weed growing out of control in all the places we don’t want it (which is anywhere!). Our neighbours still have burnt rubble in their yards and some who have lost everything are still not able to access their properties due to clean up restrictions. For us, we haven’t had hot water for almost two weeks as a result of an old hot water system, with another week to go before it will be fixed due to demands on tradies locally and social distancing requirements mixed in. Our septic became blocked yesterday, we’re not sure if it’s fire related or something that was always going to happen. Either way we were left with four people at home, two trying to work, two trying to complete school, with no running water or toilets. 

So the view from the inside of these combined problems is not a great one but I know there’s no doubt that we are the lucky ones with a secure building, heating, somewhere to cook, access to power and reasonable internet, the ability to work and no threat of being kicked out at the end of a lease. But it’s not the same for everyone living in our community with many in short term housing, living in caravans or with extended family.

Many communities across Eastern Victoria and New South Wales have experienced two disaster events within months of each other, first historic bushfires, followed by COVID-19 and all the things that come with it. I know now that these are both complex problems but I find myself wondering… are they showing up in the same way? And if they’re different how does this influence our response and recovery to each and to both combined?

Disaster recovery

The flames arrived at our doorstep on 30 December 2020 and as many people know, the 2019/2020 fires and the preceding drought caused quite a bit of chaos and trauma for months and years prior to this. Although this affected many communities for a long time, it’s still helpful to use a point in time as the ‘beginning’ if we are to better understand the stages of recovery as they unfold. For us, this was December 2019 and January 2020.

Disaster recovery research suggests that there are some pretty hard times after a disaster and it generally follows a similar pattern. There is a short honeymoon period that immediately follows the event, this might last for a few days to a couple of weeks, where there’s strong community cohesion and a sense that everyone is in it together. From personal experience, I would also add that there is a sense that initially, ‘we’ll be back to normal tomorrow’, then ‘things will be better next week’, followed by ‘this is not what we were expecting but we’ll be right soon’.  After a few weeks, it  shifts to ‘oh, things are really changing and getting back to ‘normal’ might be a little while away’… maybe this is starting to sound familiar?

The 3-12 months (and beyond) following this honeymoon period are bumpy with a sharp decline in emotions due to physical exhaustion and declining mental health from constantly managing emotions, navigating change, recovery and relationships.  The realisation that ‘hang on, the old normal is never returning, it never can, because the things we’ve experienced have changed people, affected relationships and the place we live isn’t the same anymore’.  This is when things really start to sink in. Again, this may be sounding familiar. After this, things start to pick up a bit, dotted with setbacks and challenges along the way but for the most part, recovery is on its way.

There is no doubt that when bushfires happen everyone is in response mode – there is a need to act quickly in environments that are unpredictable and rapidly changing, things are chaotic. Following this initial chaotic phase, things start to find a new rhythm and although still somewhat unpredictable and changing there are patterns emerging. Links are being made between one thing and another. In other words we move from a chaotic problem, to a complex one.

In the weeks following the fires I had the privilege of spending time with others in the world of systems thinking, who had a remarkable influence on my thinking. Their company helped me to realise a couple of key things (which may seem obvious but were significant for me):

Problems can’t just ‘move’ from chaos to complexity. They seem to flip-flop between the two, almost like a chaotic magnet constantly drawing its problem back in, even though everyone just wants to keep it out of there so they can start making sense of it.

The shift from chaos to complexity is complex in itself and takes a really long time. It has many parts all connected to each other with one influencing another and the shift is directly influenced by the content and timing of things happening around it.

These insights were key to my processing at the time. And then…

Chime in, COVID-19

Around the same time as the stage 3 restrictions were announced in Australia, I came across a brilliant article by Aisha S Ahmad – many thanks to Kate McKegg for sharing. Although describing an academic workforce, the article talks about the shift many organisations are making from office to online and its content seems relevant to sectors far beyond academia. As I started reading the article, thinking it was about work productivity, there was one paragraph that stood out for me in the first two minutes of reading.

“As someone who has experience with crises around the world, what I see behind this scramble for productivity is a perilous assumption. The answer to the question everyone is asking – ‘when will this be over?’ – is simple and obvious, yet terribly hard to accept. The answer is never.” –

The penny dropped. I immediately thought, ‘Hang on, I’ve been here before and it was only three months ago.’ This was followed by another stand out article by Kate Brady, National Recovery Advisor at the Australian Red Cross, whose encouragement that ‘we’re in strange times, but we know how to do this’ was reassurance for many in the disaster recovery field. This is when my thoughts started to align and I realised we really were experiencing two disasters, one on top of the other.

I don’t need to detail the experiences we’ve all had navigating the changes, challenges and sadness (and for some, opportunities) COVID-19 has thrown upon us but what is clear to me is that we’re in another complex problem and yet, it feels so different.

A series of recent posts by systems thinker, Diane Finegood highlights that for COVID-19, we have been shifting from a problem that initially was able to rely on contract tracing which is no doubt difficult but somewhat predictable, to now complexity, where many are still trying to make predictions about things that just can’t be predicted anymore. Diane highlights that this is a problem that’s moving from complicated into complexity.

Are all complex problems the same?

In systems thinking, acknowledging context and timing is critical. The historic path of bushfires tells us that this is a problem that starts out chaotic and moves to complex. This is in contrast to a major virus that starts out as complicated and moves to complex. Looking at the history of a problem, how it moves and changes over time, how and when things change, tells us an enormous amount about how it will behave in the future and how to create a sense of renewal after the mess settles. 

So what does this mean for recovery?

We can’t yet know exactly what this means for what’s to come. But we do know that we are in unchartered territory in many parts of Australia – two disasters on top of each of other both with remarkably different behaviours.

We also won’t be able to ‘pick up’ bushfire recovery after the virus has passed. For those not witnessing the bushfire environment on a regular basis, I can assure sure you that it’s all still there and that the glacial pace of clean-up is causing significant pain and trauma for many. People are still in need of food, shelter, family support and health services amongst many other things. In fact, while the virus plays out, bushfire recovery continues – much more slowly and very differently but it continues. It certainly hasn’t stopped because something else has invaded the public space.

The combination of these problems brings a wave of new questions and experiences, not least of which is what does bushfire recovery look like for us now? The fact that social isolation measures in Australia peaked at the 3-4 month mark post local bushfires is also not lost on me, occurring when many bushfire communities were bottoming out emotionally and physically exhausted. What impact will this have on the recovery process? On mental health for these communities? What happens when everyone is saying that the most important part of disaster recovery is coming together as community and yet we need to stay apart? For me personally, I feel like I’ve been robbed of some new normal I never got to have, grieving for something that was not realised. We were finally finding a new rhythm, it lasted about a week then it was stripped away as the country went into various forms of lockdown.

Who knows what the impact will be later on. The answers to these questions will not be realised for many months and possibly years to come. I just hope people in decision making roles are keeping them in mind with the wave of complexity we have in front of us.

*Note – we now have running water, and hot water – first world problems really but it’s incredible!

Tiana Felmingham

Community Leadership | Systems Thinking |
Facilitator | Strategy | Partnerships

Reprinted with author’s permission from LinkedIn.

Categories: June 2020