‘Learned helplessness’ leaves people in major cities unprepared to cope in natural disasters

‘Learned helplessness’ leaves people in major cities unprepared to cope in natural disasters

22 October 2013

published by www.abc.net.au

Australia — Emergency experts say a learned helplessness has left Australians in major cities unprepared to cope in natural disasters.

With the increasing impact of extreme heatwaves, storms, fires and floods, experts say traditional reliance on emergency services and recovery support such as cash handouts needs to be urgently reviewed if Australia is to better survive both the effects and escalating costs of such disasters.

Emergency expert Lewis Winter from Charles Sturt University says Australians need to prepare themselves for a situation where emergency services are unable to help them.

“What people have got to know is that they’re on their own, literally on their own,” he said.

“We can’t have a truck or a car at your door when you ring triple-0 in a disaster situation.”

Experts say people should be prepared to look after themselves for at least three days after any major disaster.

But Mr Winter says most people have no plans in place.

“If we turn off power and water, how long will you be able to survive?” he said.

“When we put to people, ‘Can you survive for 72 hours without external help?’, the reaction is their jaw drops.”

Climate-related disasters could break a city in a number of ways; a prolonged, extreme heatwave followed by a catastrophic fire in outlying bush suburbs could disrupt water and power supplies for days.

Such a disaster could mean a loss of refrigeration, no tap water or air-conditioning, as well as transport failures and traffic chaos.

Mr Lewis says cities are particularly vulnerable to these failures.

“We are more vulnerable in our big cities because we’ve got transport, we live in high rises, evacuations – talk to people about Katrina, in New Orleans, getting people out of the city,” he said.

In 2009, a heatwave in Melbourne killed more people than the Black Saturday bushfires.

Triple-0 emergency lines were overwhelmed, hospitals overflowed and the ambulance service was near breaking point after 12 days of temperatures above 28 degrees Celsius.

Of those, there were five consecutive days over 30C and three consecutive days over 43C.

Cash handouts ‘part of the problem’

Jim McGowan was the deputy chairman of the Queensland state disaster management group from 2007 to 2011 and says despite three days’ warning, Brisbane residents failed to take the appropriate action during floods in 2011.

“When flooding was occurring, people went to the grocery store and bought frozen goods,” he said.

“Frozen goods are the first things that you have to throw out. You want people to understand that they’ve actually got to live without the capacity to flick on the light switch or the electric stove or the gas stove.

“People misunderstand what is likely to occur when they are affected by the disasters.”

Mr McGowan says the expectations on emergency services are also unrealistic.

In urban areas there’s a view that warnings have to be targeted directly to individuals,” he said.

“In the case of Brisbane floods people knew that they were coming for three days and yet at the end of it people said they weren’t warned.

“I think the new level of warning goes something like, ‘I want to know that the flood is going to come to the third rise of the back steps of my house’.”

Mr McGowan warns that the Government’s emphasis on cash handouts after disasters is part of the problem.

“Some of the more recent concentrations on hardship payments and those things have actually started to increase the learned helplessness that many feel during these issues,” he said.

Just 14 per cent of compensations payouts after the Brisbane floods was spent fortifying homes against similar disaster in the future.

Governments also fail to invest in adaptation; the Productivity Commission found damaged infrastructure is mostly rebuilt as it was.

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