From the ashes

From the ashes

15 July 2009

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Australia — The destruction that swept Marysville is rare, but lessons can be drawn from similar catastrophes. Jason Dowling and Selma Milovanovic  report.

The lessons are few.

Darwin 1974, Canberra 2003 and Kelowna in Canada, razed in the worst bushfire in the history of British Columbia in 2003. These towns and cities rebuilt from disaster are a possible template as Victoria tries to restore communities scarred by Black Saturday’s firestorm.

Australia has managed major disasters before, but even those few lessons that do exist appear to have been little recognised since the February tragedy, according to some who have helped in the rebuilding.

Five months on, in the scorched hills north-east of Melbourne, one ruined town is a barren memorial to loss. Marysville. The once picturesque mountain village lost 34 residents to the flames, and almost every building they had known.

Walk around Murchison Street, once dotted with shops and restaurants, and all that remains are wire fences and clean-up trucks.Only the bakery is doing business. As Marysville’s sole eatery, it has struggled to keep up with the lunch orders of an army of reconstruction workers and passing tourists.

In the fire’s aftermath, once the town was reopened and the clean-up had begun, the State Government called on popular ex-police chief Christine Nixon to head the new Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority.

But the authority, essentially charged with speeding up the red tape of rebuilding in consultation with the sometimes conflicting interests among the community, business and government, is not working as fast as it should, locals say.

So how do you re-create a town and a community?

Tony Powell arrived in Darwin just a few weeks after cyclone Tracy flattened the city. Powell, the inaugural chairman and chief executive of the Darwin Reconstruction Commission, is worried that Victoria has mishandled its initial response.

He wants the Victorian Government to set up a planning team of town planners, architects, engineers, sociologists, economists and landscapers. He accuses the Government of doing as little as it possibly can in the bushfire recovery process. “He (Premier John Brumby) is saying there is nothing special about all of this, we don’t need any new arrangements, we don’t need any regional planning, it will work itself out.”

The danger, Powell warns, is that if the State Government does not establish a “strong professional group from the outset and endorse it” then there will be fragmented rebuilding response among different and sometimes competing government and private sector bodies. Powell says if he was in Nixon’s position, he would demand more resources and power from the State Government. “It has to have a degree of independence to do its job and it must be given resources.”

For residents, the future of the former Marysville car museum, the only building besides the bakery still standing, is a case study in petty politics impeding recovery. The locals want to recast the building as a shopping centre and develop the surrounding 6000 square metres into a public event space with a large screen and stage.

Heeding the recommendations of an economic recovery report recently completed by Boston Consulting Group on behalf of the reconstruction authority, Marysville residents argue that attractive public events, supported by quality food and distinctive shopping would bring tourists back to their town.

So in March, still reeling from the fires, the Marysville and Triangle Development Group set up a business plan for the site, and by April, presented it to the Murrindindi Shire Council and the State Government.

The council, which residents say has been stalling the plans, referred the proposal to VBRRA, where it remains. “We have been financially supported by service clubs such as Rotary and the state and federal governments … it’s frustrated us that it’s got lost in the local politics between council and VBRRA,” said group treasurer Jim Roennfeldt. Nixon said yesterday the car museum issue should be resolved by the end of the month.

Others are less critical at the pace of recovery and reconstruction in Victoria. Neil Savery, chief planning executive with the ACT Planning and Land Authority, arrived in Canberra eight months after the 2003 bushfires that destroyed 500 homes.

He said his first challenge was to examine planning and building rules and then to organise a legal process to speed up reconstruction.

Savery says those who decided to rebuild were given time to work out what they wanted to build. He says there is an “emotional burden that comes with a community not just affected by the loss of their property, the fact that it has virtually destroyed their community, their life, the way that they operate their lives” and forcing people to rebuild quickly only adds to that burden.

“People were so emotionally disturbed that they weren’t in a position to make decisions about reconstruction,” he says. “The majority it took two years to get over the shock, sort through all their insurance issues, decide what it was they wanted to build or decide whether they wanted to stay in the area,” he says. Others “just sold up”.

Savery says the most important lesson for Nixon and the Victorian Government is not to pressure those affected by the fires. “There is this huge polarisation of views and expectations within the community that has to be managed,” he says.

Ed Blakely, the former executive director of the Recovery and Development Administration for the City of New Orleans following hurricane Katrina in 2005, says recovery and reconstruction is a marathon process and warns there are also dangers in rebuilding too quickly. “There is enormous pressure to get things done quickly. In New Orleans for example, we paved a lot of streets and we paved them three or four times because we didn’t have the underground completed yet,” he said.

“If you hurry the build you will build back into disaster and that is the lesson of California,” he says about recurring bushfires in the Santa Barbara region.

At a meeting with Nixon on Thursday he says he will tell her not to rush the recovery because “many times they will have to be undone”.

Before the fires, more than 40 per cent of Marysville residents worked in tourist accommodation. Now, the residents of 32 homes still standing, and about 100 residents of a temporary accommodation village have nowhere to work, as 40 of 52 commercial properties were destroyed.

The Boston Consulting Group study, which will partly inform a wider recovery plan for the region, includes a checklist of marketing basics hinting at ways of restoring, and improving Marysville’s tourism appeal from pre-fire levels.

Before the blaze, Marysville was “doily-ville with old-fashioned tourist assets”, in the words of one person interviewed by the consultants.

BUT to revive and thrive, it needs to position itself similarly to tourist hubs such as Beechworth or the Yarra Valley. It needs a marketing manager and an annual event such as a Black Spur bike rally week as the centrepiece of a strong events calendar. In the short term, at least one high-end conference centre, supported by quality wine, food and recreation should be built, to counter the loss of the town’s three centres.

Marysville development group treasurer Jim Roennfeldt worries that as people get jobs elsewhere, they are more likely to abandon places such as Marysville, particularly if they have children — already traumatised from the fires — settled in a new school.

At a public meeting in Marysville on Sunday, the Golf and Bowls Club was dotted with old faces apprehensive of change and younger faces keen to embrace it but seemingly frustrated by delays. One view they shared was a sense of fatigue — of talking about what could be, but seeing few results. “Marysville needs a general store, it needs a post office. It has been five months and nothing has moved. It is frustrating and people are wondering how many more months will pass before even these basics are opened,” one woman says.

But Roennfeldt says the rebuilding won’t be just about returning Marysville residents to the town.

“We have to make the town attractive to new people. And all we can do is hope that an infusion of new people will bring new energy to do things like running the festivals and servicing the tourist industry.”

A straw poll of about 50 residents reveals most are grateful for the existence of VBRRA and its emphasis on community consultation in architectural designs being developed by planning consultants Roberts Day, even as some are frustrated with delays.

Most of the frustration since the fires has been directed at the local council, a small organisation thrust into the international spotlight with a disaster on its hands it was ill-equipped to manage.

Locals want to know why the council, which employs 120 staff, refused the offer of 100 additional staff from Gold Coast council at the height of clean-up efforts.

There are also questions about the federal-state power divide, with the State Government seen as wanting to retain control of the situation instead of seeking greater federal help. If a national disaster had been declared, the Federal Government would have taken over, leading to fewer political squabbles and a quicker revival of devastated towns, residents say.

The planners of Marysville’s economic revival examined Kelowna, Canada, as a positive example of what could be achieved after a devastating bushfire. In 2003, more than 334 homes and key tourist attractions were lost in a fire that caused $700 million damage.

Kelowna, a town of 96,000 people and a major gateway to the Rocky Mountains and the west coast, was rebuilt in three years.

The civic chiefs in British Columbia declared a state of emergency when the fire started. When it ended it focused on three things — minimum bureaucracy, setting achievable short and long-term reconstruction goals, and aggressive marketing aimed at tourism recovery.

More than 80 per cent of the town’s businesses were rebuilt within two years.

There was a key lesson from the Kelowna blaze. An inquiry into the fires, equivalent to Victoria’s Bushfire Royal Commission, concluded that in future, reconstruction plans needed to be in place before emergencies occurred.

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