Monday, February 16, 2009

Dispatches from the front line

My friend who volunteers for the SES has returned from one of the main bushfire relief stations and given me a new perspective on why the aid agencies are asking people to hold off on their donations of food, clothing, furniture and basically everything but money and blood.  The simplest answer is, "there is nowhere to store it yet". 

Two days after the fires, the community centre was literally overflowing with clothes, food, children's toys and bikes.  A separate giant marquee was filled with household furniture.  The Department of Human Services coordinator was flat out trying to find space for telecommunications, insurance companies, banks, Centrelink and emergency relief agencies to set up their services for the victims.  Every hour literally dozens on well-meaning people came up to him wanting to donate their time or goods but inadvertently causing more chaos.

A farmer who had lost his house showed no interest in the piles of furniture and clothing.  His main concern was for stock that had survived the fire but were in danger of dying of starvation because the bridge connecting his property to the main road had been burnt out.  Could the SES send a team to rebuild it today?

In Judaism there is a prayer said during the harvest celebration of Sukkot asking for the right amount of rain and the right amount of sunshine to be provided at the right times in the season.  A substantial rainfall is crucial while the seeds are germinating but fatal for a crop that's ready to harvest.  Similarly, bright sunlight that is necessary for a mature plant to grow will kill a freshly sown seed.  It's not enough to pray for sunshine and rain; we need it at the right time and in the right amounts. 

The same could be said for donations after a natural disaster.  In a year's time, people who have rebuilt their houses will want and need furniture to put in them.  But in the meantime, while they are staying in friends' spare rooms and crisis accommodation they cannot accept these donations and the furniture needs to be stored somewhere.  The Salvation Army has had to take out a 12-month lease on a warehouse and shop front in Whittlesea to accommodate some of the donations, and this of course costs money that could otherwise be spent on more immediate assistance.

On the day of the fires the police visited a hairdressing salon in a nearby town and asked if any staff could be spared; many of those who had escaped the fires had singed and burnt hair and what they needed before they could even start to consider the future was something as simple as a humanising shower and hair cut.

So at the moment my hats and other well-meaning donations for bushfire victims are sitting in my spare bedroom.  Until I get the word that the time is right for them to help, rather than hinder, the relief efforts.

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