Some 14 months on from the bushfires that devastated many areas on in NSW's Bega Valley there are single people and families living without access to basic sanitation - toilets, water and showers.
Children were being driven for 30 or 40 minutes to get access to showers, families remain in crisis, individuals are reduced to tears by their situation and anxiety levels in affected primary school "are very high".
In giving evidence to the Senate Committee looking at lessons to be learned in relation to the Australian bushfire season 2019-20, chair of the Social Justice Advocate of the NSW Sapphire Coast Mick Brosnan was one of several local representatives giving heartfelt testimony on a disjointed government system lacking any real action or understanding.
Two of the six people on Friday were in tears, nothing has changed for these people except the time has elapsed. The fact that caravans are still needed, I think is a terrible indictment on us.Mick Brosnan Social Justice Advocates
"Fourteen months down the track I was on six properties last Friday, one in a caravan, one in a caravan without a shelter, one had just received a container, that was all that was on the property and others in various states from there," Mr Brosnan told the Senate Committee.
"The problem is not the caravans but that people are still in caravans. It's been very slow for people to receive human and financial support," he said.
"Two of the six people on Friday were in tears, nothing has changed for these people except the time has elapsed. The fact that caravans are still needed, I think is a terrible indictment on us."
Mr Brosnan said he was aware of 63 people on a list who were still due to receive tanks, toilets and showers.
"But that is 14 months later. We have to recognise something went wrong," he said.
In response to questioning from chair of the Senate Committee Tim Ayres, around the effects on school children Mr Brosnan said one of the Headspace workers in the shire was reporting huge increases in anxiety levels in primary aged school children.
With the exception of the Minderoo pods, these dwellings have been cobbled together by themselves, their neighbours or a handful of good souls who have sourced donated caravans and cobbled together some building materials for makeshift dwelling. Hardly the stuff for a first world country.Christine Walters Cobargo Bushfire Relief Centre
It was something that had been noticed by teachers and was affecting the children's ability to cope both at home and at school particularly in outlying areas such as Rocky Hall and Towamba, Mr Brosnan said.
"Up until June, July 2020 people were driving from places such as Rocky Hall to Wyndham for toilets, showers and internet," he said.
Mr Ayres asked how it was not a national scandal that primary school aged children had to be driven to town for a shower.
"It is - it's not just that but the fact it's being going on for so long," Mr Brosnan said.
To illustrate his point he said the following day he would be putting water tanks on properties with a volunteer plumber. These were sites where people had been existing with just a 1000l IBC (Intermediate Bulk Carrier).
"We're looking at flatpack toilets and showers. These things have come so late and often through grants rather than government implementation," Mr Brosnan said.
He said people were suffering from PSTD and there was a need for case workers on the ground and people in mentoring roles, "not something six months down the track".
Earlier on, the committee heard from Christine Walters, of the Cobargo Bushfire Relief Centre who made similar comments.
"People are still living on properties with dangerous trees that could fall and kill them or a family member at any time. People are still living in caravans with a tarp for shelter, half a shed or a Minderoo pod. Now that's luxury," Ms Walters said.
"With the exception of the Minderoo pods, these dwellings have been cobbled together by themselves, their neighbours or a handful of good souls who have sourced donated caravans and cobbled together some building materials for makeshift dwelling. Hardly the stuff for a first world country."
A common theme was the way mental health was being addressed with Ms Walters saying help was needed in person not via phone or online.
"The failure at all levels of government to address these issues and to leave people pretty much to their own devices due to lack of understanding, manpower or training or appropriate communication will result in a prolonged deterioration of people's physical and mental health to the detriment and health of the economic viability of the region," Ms Walters said.
Zena Armstrong, of the Cobargo Recovery Fund said the mental, emotional and physical impacts of the fires ran very deep.
One charity to our face, on our site, burnt out, buildings demolished all round, clearly in trouble, said you're going to need a police report to prove you're not trying to defraud us.Burnt out Wandella resident Graeme Freedman
"It's concerning to hear that some in authority are now claiming that most people are doing well, and that it is mainly those with pre-existing mental health conditions who are doing it tough. This is not the case. We are recovering. But these fires have shaken everyone who lived through them, whether or not they were flame affected. A full recovery of individuals and communities across the eastern seaboard is still a long way off," Ms Armstrong told the committee.
Wandella resident Graeme Freedman who lost his home, is living in a caravan and trying to rebuild said a good mental health outcome for him would be to get out of the caravan and into his home.
"We've had no assistance on fences, had to pay for everything, every water tank," he said.
Mr Freedman said it had been so hard trying to get physical support on his 10 acre rural property he had been obliged to pay backpackers to help him dig trenches.
He said the bureaucratic issues around personal identification where people had to keep retelling their stories rather than have some form of secure ID as a bushfire affected person was "bureaucracy-induced trauma".
"One charity to our face, on our site, burnt out, buildings demolished all round, clearly in trouble, said you're going to need a police report to prove you're not trying to defraud us," Mr Freedman said.
He said the people who had the equipment, the personnel and the experience to help in a disaster - the military - were not allowed to.
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Leanne Atkinson of Catholic Social Services said some in the community had told her the journey since the fires had been more harrowing than the fires themselves because of that sense of a lack of control, a lack of em.
"I lay awake at night worrying that someone had bumped their head going out to the toilet at night, that Minderoo pods that have been put in place but waste management has not been dealt with," Ms Atkinson said.
The Finance and Public Administration References Committee is expected to produce a report on its findings by December 2, 2021.
The Inquiry's Terms of Reference:
Lessons to be learned in relation to the preparation and planning for, response to and recovery efforts following the 2019-20 Australian bushfire season, with particular reference to:
- advice provided to the Federal Government, prior to the bushfires, about the level of bushfire risk this fire season, how and why those risks differed from historical norms, and measures that should be taken to reduce that risk in the future;
- the respective roles and responsibilities of different levels of government, and agencies within government, in relation to bushfire planning, mitigation, response, and recovery;
- the Federal Government's response to recommendations from previous bushfire Royal Commissions and inquiries;
- the adequacy of the Federal Government's existing measures and policies to reduce future bushfire risk, including in relation to assessing, mitigating and adapting to expected climate change impacts, land use planning and management, hazard reduction, Indigenous fire practices, support for firefighters and other disaster mitigation measures;
- best practice funding models and policy measures to reduce future bushfire risk, both within Australia and internationally;
- existing structures, measures and policies implemented by the Federal Government, charities and others to assist communities to recover from the 2019-20 bushfires, including the performance of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency;
- the role and process of advising Government and the federal Parliament of scientific advice;
- an examination of the physical and mental health impacts of bushfires on the population, and the Federal Government's response to those impacts; and
- any related matters.