Meeting people where they’re at: a trauma-informed approach to disaster response

  • Rural Aid's Gome Simfukwe (far right) inspects flood damage on the Hawkesbury. [Image: Gome Simfukwe]
    Rural Aid's Gome Simfukwe (far right) inspects flood damage on the Hawkesbury. [Image: Gome Simfukwe]
  • Corn field devastation and destroyed corn.
    Crop devastation and destroyed corn. [Image: Gome Simfukwe]

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, a typical response is to set up recovery centres or hubs in a local town or community hall. Various agencies and organisations set up stalls and affected members of the community are encouraged to attend these centres to seek assistance.

In my brief experience with these recovery centres, members of the affected communities, particularly in rural areas, rarely attend the recovery hubs. When they do attend it’s typically the partners of the farmers or businesspeople who visit, incentivised usually by whatever financial assistance is available. Enquiries into this behaviour revealed two main reasons:

  • Rural folk are proud individuals for whom attending a recovery centre could cause a sense of weakness, failure and shame.
  • Usually, recovery centres operate while there is still a lot of work to be done to clean up properties, secure fencing and ensure safety from further damage.

My Hawkesbury experience

When the call came for Rural Aid counsellors to attend the flood-stricken Hawkesbury area in New South Wales, I jumped at the opportunity. As the time to travel approached, I was confronted by the reality of my anxiety around flying, having not flown in more than two years. This feeling curbed my enthusiasm regarding the trip and meant I didn’t have much time to plan the actual work I was going to do once in the Hawkesbury.

Consequently, I arrived in Sydney somewhat ill-prepared mentally for the reality of what I was walking into. On my first day on the ground, I attended one of two recovery centres that were set up for the flood recovery in the Hawkesbury region. By 1 pm I still hadn’t had anyone come to my table and so I started to think about more practical ways of effectively supporting the region. Rural Aid sent out a group SMS to our local farmers to let them know I was in the area and happy to visit people on their properties. This proved a much more effective method of engagement as I immediately started to receive calls from farmers requesting a farm visit.

Farm visits

Meeting people during their ordeal and giving them the opportunity to not only talk me through, but literally walk me through, the devastation was an honour I will never forget. The stench of the rotting vegetation, the damaged machinery, the ruined turf farms coupled with the fact this was the third consecutive year they had experienced floods, was all very confronting.

Natural disasters cost families their livelihoods. Floods are not covered by insurance as they are considered an ‘Act of God’. Most famers have grown up with farming as their primary skill set and so changing careers is usually not a practical option. Additionally, these farms have usually been in the family for generations and so considering alternative career paths or selling the farm can be associated with a sense of failure. What people need most is a sense of stabilisation and safety. Having someone come and meet them in their environment, allowing them to share their experience, seems more aligned with a response that is trauma-informed.


Critical to longevity in a caregiving role is self-care. Exposure to the terrible stories of loss, if not properly managed, can lead to burnout. As part of my self-care process, I was able to debrief with my team as well as seek some external professional help to manage the aftermath of the trip to the Hawkesbury. Finding ways to decompress that work for you as an individual will ensure that you’re able to continue to provide effective care.

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