Lessons learned from natural disaster

Anne Tiernan

Associate Professor Anne Tiernan was a featured speaker at the State Services Commission and ANZSOG applied learning event in Christchurch earlier this month, which focused on the Australasian experience of post-disaster policy management.

The event was one in a series of events that aimed to draw on the experiences of Australians and New Zealanders in the aftermath of natural disasters, and how the lessons learned from these experiences can improve the resilience of our communities in the future.

A/Prof Tiernan said the timing of the event highlighted the importance of the issue. “With the images of devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy it is interesting to contemplate the contrast between the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the overwhelming intergovernmental response we have witnessed this past week,” she said.

“Governments have long expected natural disasters would become more serious and frequent, and because of this they have been evolving alternative policy responses aimed at promoting individual and community resilience to natural disasters.”

Disaster management research at the Griffith School of Government and International Relations focuses on the capacity to coordinate and deliver across the three tiers of government in Australia’s federal system.

A/Prof Tiernan said cooperative arrangements between jurisdictions promote dialogue, exchange, and policy learning. “Emergency and disaster management in Australia is built on the internationally recognised PPRR framework: preparedness, planning, response, and recovery,” she said.

“Relationships are crucial to getting things done, particularly during the response phase. Respondents have consistently emphasized the need to constantly cultivate relationships during ‘peace time’ as the basis for collaboration.

“While this is consistent with the literature on policy networks which emphasises trust and diplomacy, the findings challenge themes in the international literature based primarily on US experience.

“This highlights the need for further research on the Australian, New Zealand and the Asia Pacific experience, where the majority of disasters occur.”

A/Prof Tiernan said Australia’s disaster management system was far from perfect but had shown itself to be flexible, responsive, capable of learning, and adaptive.

“We are currently experiencing a policy gap in disaster management policy,” A/Prof Tiernan said.

“We argue that the gap is the lack of policy and funding framework to ensure the lessons learned in response and recovery are integrated back into prevention and preparedness.

“Often rather than offering opportunities for learning and improvement, they become adversarial and seemingly interested mostly in apportioning blame.

“A key challenge is to ensure resilience is not undermined by government actions in recovery, which can pose a serious dilemma particularly with media focus on affected individuals and communities.

“The prospects for doing this in the disaster management arena are more promising than in other policy domains because of its intergovernmental and network policy capabilities.”

This research builds on a major ARC-funded project that examines the policy advisory capacity of the Australian federal government.