Australia — MAINTAINING strong social ties in the aftermath of natural disasters is just as important as rebuilding infrastructure to help people overcome traumatic events, a leading US psychologist says. Professor Krzysztof Kaniasty is visiting Australia this week with a key message for governments around the country as they gear up for another season of bushfires and floods.
Prof Kaniasty says governments need to develop long-term plans to maintain a sense of community in the months after a natural disaster hits to stop them becoming “social catastrophes”.
Such plans were just as important as supplying food, housing, rebuilding roads, firewalls, bridges and churches in the immediate aftermath of a disaster like the Black Saturday bushfires which devastated Victoria in 2009, he said.
“When we talk to (disaster) victims in the first week or so they say ‘Oh, that brought us together,” Prof Kaniasty said, ahead of his keynote address to the Australian Psychological Society’s annual conference in Canberra today.
“People have this idea of this altruistic community and togetherness but this doesn’t last.
“This initial generosity and togetherness will be slowly overtaken by gradual disillusionment and the harsh reality of grief, loss and destruction which will lead to an erosion of connectedness (in the community).
“If we don’t foresee this or ignore these signs we will let a lot of these things become social disasters.”
Prof Kaniasty, who lectures in social psychology at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said only about one third of disaster victims experience lasting psychological problems such as anxiety, depression or post traumatic stress disorder.
For those living in close-knit communities, their chances of suffering such problems were lower because they already felt connected and supported before tragedy struck.
His top tips for governments to focus on in the weeks and months after the disaster include relocating people who have lost their homes to the same area rather than a mix of shelters, hotels and tents.
Encouraging people to resume routine activities – like shopping, bowling and going to church – which were just as important.
“This will allow people to have the sense of normalcy,” Prof Kaniasty said. “It will keep people informed about what others may need and the idea of community.
“The process of successful coping with unforeseen disasters like a bushfire begins before they happen.”
Prof Kaniasty said one of the greatest examples of a natural disaster becoming a social disaster was Hurricane Katrina, which struck the US south-east in 2005 and killed 836 people.
“The community fell apart,” he said.
“We left the poor to themselves, others we relocated and we never rebuilt the neighbourhoods (quickly). Some are still not finished.
“It’s not a natural disaster any more, it’s social.”