Hear Dr Christine Eriksen's interview with ABC Radio Illawarra's Lindsay McDougall

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When disaster strikes, Dr Christine Eriksen doesn’t just see a city or community at the mercy of nature. She sees a diverse population trying to survive, and a complex network of services trying to save lives and get people back on their feet. As a human geographer, Dr Eriksen isn’t just interested in what happens during a disaster; she’s concerned with how existing circumstance affects vulnerability and preparedness as well as a person’s ability to cope in the immediate aftermath and the recovery long-term. 

Socioeconomic circumstances, for example, can have a great effect on someone’s preparation for, and response to, a disaster. Researchers found this to be the case when Hurricane Katrina struck the south east of the United States in 2005; people in lower-income households were disadvantaged from the get go. 

“They lived in areas that were below sea level because that was the cheapest part of town to live in, they usually had no vehicle access so they were dependant on public transport, they often didn’t have the same resources in terms of communications, so they weren’t as well informed about what was going on.” 

In households where there are elderly people or people with disabilities and a lack of outside assistance, the disadvantages can be exacerbated. 

“The degree of the disaster is usually much worse for people who are less well off or have a disability or some other form of social characteristic that means they don’t have the support network or the resources to cope.” 

Even residents in wealthier neighbourhoods are vulnerable in disasters despite affluence seemingly providing a buffer. 

“People with dependants – be it an elderly parent or a child, pets or livestock, are less able to just get up and go in a rush.” 

Disaster Geographies

Researchers worldwide have documented the effects of social factors such as poverty, gender, cultural beliefs, age or sexual identity on disaster resilience. While there is growing recognition of these findings within parts of the international disaster management sector, we are a long way from seeing inclusive disaster management being implemented worldwide. 

“Even though I think a lot of emergency management organisations around the world increasingly think about inclusivity, there’s often a lack of resources to make it happen,” Dr Eriksen explains. 

“Working with people on the ground is usually much more resource intensive whether it’s in the form of having staff to door knock or work with groups, having the right types of leaflets or brochures in the right languages, having the capacity to map out the socio-economic demographics of an area, those kinds of resources are not always available.” 

Research in this area is beginning to filter down from those in academic research to undergraduate level study. At UOW, a new subject - Disaster Geographies (or GEOG251) - will address a growing demand for knowledge in the area among students and the workforce. Dr Eriksen is coordinating the subject and says she jumped on the opportunity to turn her research into a subject for study for a number of reasons. 

“We are not resilient in this country to the increasing number of disasters we’re experiencing. We know that with climate change we are more exposed; the fire seasons start earlier and last longer, we have more high fire danger days, and bushfires are more intense,” Dr Eriksen, whose research often focuses on social dimensions of bushfire preparedness, response and recovery at home, at work, and at heart, says. 

“We need a bigger fire fighting force. If you exclude half of the population in terms of discriminating against women in a traditionally male-dominated profession, you eliminate half of the possible candidates for the job, and that’s across the different types of institutions – they all need more diversity in terms of building a bigger, better and stronger workforce.” 

Disaster Geographies WIDE

"The need for citizens – your average Joe Blow – to understand the changing climate and the threats posed by natural hazards also factors into it." Says Dr Eriksen pictured above.

Learning from the past

Disaster Geographies, designed with everyone in mind – from future first responders, humanitarian aid workers, social workers, national park rangers to policy makers, will use case studies like Hurricane Katrina to draw attention to the social dimensions that make a person more or less vulnerable and resilient. Students will examine LGBTQI experiences of the 2011 Queensland floods, the political obstacles and cultural significance of Indigenous fire knowledge, and gendered responses to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. The subject will also address the need to consider ethical dilemmas during disaster recovery, disaster capitalism, the role of children in emergency situations, and the emotional impact of working in disasters. 

The range of disasters and social characteristics covered by the subject speaks to the complexities of disaster management at every level. It also speaks to the importance of understanding different community groups before a disaster. 

“Using Wollongong as an example, we know that parts of the city have lower socioeconomic levels; there are areas with higher levels of migrant or refugee populations who might not speak English; people have built homes in low-lying areas that are disproportionately vulnerable to flooding, rising sea levels or a tsunami,” Dr Eriksen says. 

“What we have to do is prepare those communities.” 

One PhD student Dr Eriksen is currently supervising is investigating how to do just this with former refugees and migrants resettled in the Illawarra. 

“We’re looking at their past experience of disasters, including experiences of war and perilous resettlement journeys, and how that influences how they perceive themselves, how that makes them able to respond to an emergency here in the Illawarra. 

“We have found that many of them don’t know who to contact in an emergency, many of them don’t speak English, many of them are afraid of people in uniforms.” 

In response to these award-winning findings, the Wollongong branch of the NSW State Emergency Service has created a multicultural liaison group with up to 20 former refugees who’ve been trained to work with the community and to help them understand the natural hazards they’re most likely to be confronted with – flooding, sea level rise, windy conditions, bushfires. People are also taught the common signs of a hazard, such as smoke in the air, who to contact in an emergency, and where to go if they need to evacuate. 

“It’s just one way that you can plan in advance and try to heighten the resilience levels of particular communities,” Dr Eriksen says. 

Understanding natural hazards

The first task for students though will be to gain a better understanding of the root causes of disasters and their impact on at-risk communities in general. 

“One of the key learning objectives that I’m trying to achieve in this subject, is to teach the next generation of potential emergency managers not to think of disasters as natural,” Dr Eriksen explains, referring to the idea that a natural hazard isn’t a disaster until people are affected. 

“If you have a cyclone that’s lurking off the coast of Queensland but never makes landfall, it just stays a natural hazard, it never actually becomes a disaster. That’s the bare bones of it. 

“When that cyclone does make landfall and collides with a community, the preparedness and resilience of each individual within that community, and the awareness of subgroups and their needs among emergency responders, will have an effect on the scale of the damage done and the recovery effort needed. 

“You really need to be paying attention to the social characteristics of a community before a disaster actually unfolds so you know the different parameters you’re working with.”

Hear Dr Christine Eriksen's interview with ABC Radio Illawarra's Lindsay McDougall