Strengthening community resilience in natural disasters

Keywords: Disaster, Emergency, Management, Resilience, Preparedness
Project status: Completed
Partners: Cherbourg Aboriginal Council, Volunteering Queensland, SES Queensland

The National Strategy for Disaster Resilience states that building resilience is a shared responsibility between households, businesses, communities and governments. Disaster and emergency service organisations are increasingly recognizing the need for developmental community engagement approaches, to work with the diverse needs and character of communities, and they need tools and education to support this shift. Another key challenge for practitioners working in the field of disaster management is re-thinking and re-articulating their established practices, moving away from the traditional top-down, chain-of-command styles of communication, planning and action.

Cherbourg, a small town in Queensland, had a succession of devastating floods that resulted in deaths and widespread infrastructure damage in January 2011 and February 2013. Critical access to adequate emergency services was acutely highlighted during this time. When the bridge, which is the only access route in and out of the town, was cut off for several days, the community had to rely on supplies flown in. Since the disaster, the Queensland state government provided funding for rebuilding infrastructure and relocation of houses, but it also came with a Disaster Management Plan. This thick document was handed to the Cherbourg Aboriginal Council to implement, and according to the Council leader, it has no connection or meaning to the community. It is a familiar story but more wretched when its carried out in this town, echoing its historical and perpetual treatment of Aboriginal people as vulnerable, disempowered and unable to make their own decisions (Blake 2001).

The design research team from RMIT University were invited on this project by J from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Natural Disaster Resilience project. She had been working with this community for over a year, building the fundamentals of a trusting and respectful relationship. J was keen to integrate the methods she learnt at the Australian Emergency Management Institute into a disaster awareness weekend in partnership with this community, emergency services, local council and Aboriginal elders as a way to establish ownership and find a way forward for disaster planning. She was confident of its effectiveness:

“The methodology was perfect for discussions and worked well with literacy levels. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community particularly enjoy yarning about their community [and] connections. … This method allowed great interactions and learnings about their community … placed locals at the centre of their own solutions.”

One of the methods J adapted in her session was the social network mapping. Instead of undertaking this individually, she drew the social groupings that the participants were connected to on a large piece of paper, resulting in a complex web diagram. The visual nature worked really well – it enabled them to actually see how inter-woven their kinship and friendship ties were. It was an eye-opener for the participants who may have tacitly assumed their connection to one another. One participant in J’s workshop said:

“the [social network exercise] was very good … for the simple reason that you think of your groups, but when you sit down and think who you’re involved with, its a big network that I’m involved with … its good to be able to refer people to other organisations [when you’re helping others].”

For this participant, her priority was to help her grandchildren, but since knowing her connection to others, it had made her feel more secure – it means that she can also be assisted as well. Collective recognition of their connectivity was further reinforced in the What If scenario exercise where looking out for one another was the most common response to each unexpected emergency.

J incorporated the methods into a best-practice model for disaster management – Prevention, Preparedness, Response and Recovery (PPRR). She facilitated a discussion where participants volunteered two tasks they could undertake, as a strategy of moving forward. Most took responsibility to take roles in their own street, identifying information that they might pass on and the assistance they could provide to others, ensuring that preparation was connected to their lives and those around them. This group discussion also eased any anxiety of being over-burdened, as they now knew what other people were going to do. There was recognition that they didn’t need be totally dependent upon the emergency services, nor did they have to be totally self-sufficient and do everything alone. This collective approach to preparedness and planning ensured it was designed in their own words, taking into account their own and each others’ contexts and they take ownership of what happens. This plan is currently being put forward to the local council to support and passed on to Emergency Management Queensland as their Disaster Ready Strategy.

Perceiving a community as vulnerable is problematic, bringing with it a paternalistic attitude. J says ‘that’s where you’ll keep them’, that already places limitations on what can be enabled. In contrast, the ATSI participants demonstrated their strong resilience by rising above the devastation of previous successive flood and also in displaying their concern and inter-connectedness with one another and the broader community. There is strong evidence for the importance of social interactions, for exchanging information on shared risks and taking collective actions to address it (Akama et al 2013). This ATSI community is not vulnerable, and in fact, they are better placed than other fragmented and disconnected communities in Australia, to cope in future disasters.

For more on this project, please contact Yoko Akama or download the published paper (from Akama’s link)


Akama, Y., Chaplin, S., & Fairbrother, P. (2013). Social Networks and bushfire preparedness Paper presented at the International Conference on Risk-informed Disaster Management: Planning for Response, Recover and Resilience, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia, 8 – 11th July 2013.

Blake, T. (2001). A dumping ground: a history of the Cherbourg Settlement. St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.

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