Disaster response: Helping the Most Vulnerable in Times of Crisis

Over the century, Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation has supported the community through many disasters. Today, the Foundation looks beyond relief and into prevention and preparedness.

2020 presented many challenges for the community; first the devastating Summer bushfires and then the COVID-19 pandemic. Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation supported Foodbank Victoria to ensure that our most vulnerable continued to have access to healthy food.

In October 2022, record rainfall battered Murray River towns, inundating thousands of homes across Victoria. In Echuca, on the border of Victoria and New South Wales where the Campaspe, Goulburn and Murray rivers meet, floodwaters peaked at nearly 95 metres – the highest since 1916. As the Campaspe River rose, residents received evacuation orders.
And when the floodwaters subsided, locals were left with the heartbreaking task of clearing out tonnes of sodden earth and more than 200,000 sandbags from homes, businesses and neighbourhood streets.
But the community came together. At the Echuca Neighbourhood House, a team of two worked round the clock, distributing food packages to people in the region, all while coming to terms with their own losses in the face of this natural disaster. Fortunately, Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation was there to help.
“The Neighbourhood House is run by two people,” says Dr Karyn Bosomworth, Program Manager for Healthy & Climate Resilient Communities. “That’s two people, part-time. By December they hadn’t had a day off.”
The Foundation was able to issue a recovery grant of $50,000 in just a matter of days so the Neighbourhood House could hire more help. It was the Foundation’s fastest turnaround of a grant in its history.
“That really made me cry,” says Karyn. “That’s huge for someone’s mental health. And it helps everyone by keeping the supply going.”
If it had come through the government, Karyn says, that grant would have taken months. But the Foundation has a longstanding track record for lending a hand in disasters and can move swiftly.
Across the century, recovery and support in the wake of Victoria’s cycle of natural disasters ­– particularly bushfires and floods – has been a core part of the Foundation’s work. In 1926, when Victoria experienced one of its worst bushfire seasons, the Lord Mayor launched the Lord Mayor's Bush Fires Relief Appeal to provide emergency support to those regional communities affected. The public response was overwhelming­ – over £100,000 (close to $9 million today) was raised in the Greater Melbourne area alone.
In subsequent years, the Foundation got more directly involved in disaster response fundraising, and it has remained so ever since. The Foundation’s public fundraising appeals were essential to the communities recovering from the 1939, 1965, 1983 and 2009 bushfires in Victoria. The Foundation has also coordinated Victorian fundraisers for disasters that have occurred interstate and overseas – from flood recovery in New South Wales in 1955 and in Queensland in 2011.
“Historically we respond to disasters every few years but now our disaster response program is always on,” says the Foundation’s CEO Dr Catherine Brown OAM. “But we’ve now realised that when disasters occur, the general public is very involved and generous. It’s not the most useful time for us to be involved, as big funders. We realised we needed to be more strategic. We need to think about disaster response but also disaster preparedness and longer-term recovery.”
With that in mind, the Foundation now responds to disasters in a more holistic way, with a focus on resilience. As per the Foundation’s Disaster Relief Policy, 20 per cent of disaster relief funding is spent at the immediate response stage, when the public is most engaged, and 40 per cent is allocated towards recovery in the aftermath. The remaining 40 per cent goes towards preparing and safeguarding against future disasters.
“A disaster isn’t just about the specific time of disaster,” says Catherine. “It’s about recovering and preparing. That’s very important, and it changes the way we think about it. The Foundation stands ready to respond to all stages of a disaster. We can act quickly because we know our grant partners, and we are prepared.”
In the summer of 2020, Australians across multiple charities, collectively raised an astounding $640 million for communities affected by the Black Summer bushfires. The Foundation during this time was able to support organisations like Foodbank and The Salvation Army, which were providing urgent care to bushfire-affected communities. It also supported Habitat for Humanity, which provided temporary homes made from recycled shipping containers, and made grants available to Environment Victoria to raise awareness about climate change, and to the Victorian Council of Social Service to gather data about local communities’ needs.
When COVID-19 hit in 2020, the global impact was immediate and severe, and the Foundation responded accordingly. Catherine recalls making a phone call to Brendan Murphy, Chief Medical Officer at the time. “I asked, where do you need us?” says Catherine. “And he directed us to the Alfred.”
Within weeks, the Foundation had made a rapid grant of $250,000 to Alfred Health to develop a study into the best treatment for vulnerable people with COVID-19.
“So we went where we always go,” says Catherine, “to the aid of the most disadvantaged, vulnerable groups.”
From 2020 to 2022, the Foundation granted over $3.5 million in COVID-19 response grants, supporting a range of areas, from housing, to the mental health of frontline healthcare workers.
In recent years, the division between immediate response, recovery and preparedness has become more complicated and the Foundation now responds to all these stages simultaneously, on multiple fronts.
“These last few years have been a different world,” says Catherine. “Disasters are frequent and ongoing, and I don’t think that will change. There’s no quiet time anymore.”
An increasingly complex disaster landscape calls for a fresh approach. Dr Karyn Bosomworth has dedicated her career to understanding these disasters, and how we can respond not just quicker, but smarter.
“My role is really looking at the roots of what makes people vulnerable,” says Karyn.
The biggest danger in Melbourne, Karyn says, is heat. “It kills more Australians than all the other natural hazards combined,” she says. “And the biggest challenge is that climate change exacerbates existing problems.”
As temperatures rise, some areas of Melbourne will be affected more than others. Urban heat islands are very built-up areas where temperatures are higher due to a lack of green space. As the city has sprawled outwards and more land has been paved over and developed, urban heat islands have become an issue, particularly in the city’s western suburbs, where green space has not been adequately incorporated into urban planning.
The heat-island effect can, of course, be wound back with more green spaces. But to make that mitigation as effective as possible, we first need to better understand how that process works. According to The Australian Disaster Resilience Index, many areas in Melbourne’s west, from Footscray to Melton, are classed as of ‘low’ resilience, based on metrics of environmental planning, emergency services access and social character. Urban heat vulnerability maps identify many of the same areas. Careful consideration of climate-resilience is also essential in urban planning so that Melbourne does not lose any existing tree coverage in urban developments.
As well as working to prevent these disasters through better planning, Karyn says that research into climate science has shown that one of the most powerful factors affecting resilience is human connection. Karyn sees the Foundation’s role as one of support in the form of community infrastructure and creating opportunities for people to connect. “That’s everything from libraries to neighbourhood houses, to knitting groups,” says Karyn. “All of which,” she adds, “enable people to build bonds. That’s what gets you through a crisis. COVID-19 showed us that.”
The Community Collaborative for Resilience, a new initiative seed-funded by the Foundation, is an online hub for communities and organisations to share knowledge and resources and join collective discussions. Karyn says it’s about combining our strengths, sharing knowledge, and ensuring no-one is left behind.
“Our role is to make sure people are provided these spaces and that they can participate as genuine, equal partners in those discussions,” says Karyn.
“The evidence is in,” she adds. “Community connections can literally mean the difference between life and death.”
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