Recovery from disaster experience: its effect on perceptions of climate change risk and on adaptive behaviours to prevent, prepare, and respond to future climate contingencies

Adaptation Research Grants Program
Dr Helen Boon
James Cook University

Executive summary from final report

Disasters disrupt multiple levels of socio-cultural systems in which lives are embedded. In this study, we used Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory to analyse individual and, by proxy, community resilience.  Bronfenbrenner’s theory provided a comprehensive framework to evaluate the interacting factors that support resilience across different disaster sites and communities. While Bronfenbrenner’s theory has been used extensively, we believe that this is the first time it has been used to model disaster resilience. 

Our study focused on four disaster-impacted communities: Beechworth and Bendigo in Victoria and Ingham and Innisfail in Queensland. Each site had experienced a different disaster, namely bushfire, drought, flood and cyclone respectively, 1 year, 8 years, 1 year and 5 years previously. 

The aims of the project were to:

1) Identify private and public sector groups’ beliefs, behaviours and policies that have supported community  resilience to a disaster event;
2) Examine the commonalities of the experience for the four types of disaster and the possible impact of their respective intensities, duration and perceived frequency, as well as how well communities cope with the unexpected;
3) Assess the degree of community resilience in each of four study sites in disaster affected areas; and
4) Construct a model with findings to help implement appropriate and equitable emergency management policies and mitigation strategies for climate change events.

A key hypothesis underpinning our research was that individuals remaining in the disaster impacted communities were likely to be resilient to disaster. 

A step-wise mixed-methods research design was adopted. Demographic data were used to profile communities for comparisons, determine representativeness of samples and to compare communities, pre and post disaster, for disaster impacts. Individual and group interviews were conducted with 186 people from the four communities to identify factors that helped individuals prepare, respond and recover from the natural disaster and to identify what supported disaster resilience. In addition, we explored attitudes to the notion of climate change. Surveys, informed by the interview data and the literature were then constructed and used on a sample of 1,008 people from the four sites in order to generalize results from the interviews.  Rasch analyses were used to quantify the factors identified; these were then used in a structural equation model (SEM) to assess Bronfenbrenner’s theory of influences upon disaster resilience. Structural equation modelling provided identification of the links between the various factors shown to support resilience. Our analyses were used to assess levels of individual resilience to, and preparedness for, disaster events by site and across all four sites.

Results of our SEMs showed that disaster resilience across all sites was both an individual trait and a process facilitated by adaptability and community factors. By far the strongest direct pathways to resilience arose from a sense of place and adaptability. Indirect influences upon resilience, mediated by adaptability, were financial capacity, family and friends’ support, communications about the natural hazard and climate change knowledge and trust in climate change communication sources.  The sources of support for individual and community resilience are distributed across Bronfenbrenner’s ecosystem levels with a varying degree of importance.  Across all research sites generic factors that enhance disaster resilience are microsystem support; a sense of place; financial capacity and climate change knowledge; and trust for climate change communications.

We also demonstrated that communications, council disaster preparedness and response to the disaster, and local community group responses to the disaster supported community resilience, as indicated by individual’s endorsement of community recovery and council function. These were most positive for Beechworth and Ingham, least positive for Bendigo.  

Household preparedness is highly predicted by financial capacity, and by adaptability and resilience.  As a result, lack of financial capacity renders individuals and households vulnerable to disasters. Financial support available to individuals from state and federal agencies and charity groups were not directly linked to individual resilience, but rather linked to potentially leaving the community. Therefore, we surmise that these factors were both individual and community resilience supports since without them individuals would have left the community, leaving it depleted in numbers and, in line with our hypothesis, rendering  the community less resilient.  

Individual safety and wellbeing is likely to be a strong contributor to community resilience and recovery. More research needs to be conducted to clarify this.

The demographic profiles of each of the four communities comparing pre disaster community data with post-disaster community data supported our hypothesis that individuals remaining in the community were likely to be resilient and that these communities were resilient to disaster since they had a stable population despite the impact of disasters.  However, for the individuals who endorsed leaving the community, whose resilience was not supported by the other community factors, the financial support from state and federal bodies sustained them, helped them stay in the community, thus possibly increasing their disaster resilience.   

It is important to note that the relationship between climate change views and disaster experience is very complex and needs further exploration, particularly in rural and regional areas of Australia.

Based on our findings, we make the following recommendations to emergency managers and policy makers:

• Unique community characteristics make every community different in the levels of individuals’ resilience to disasters and the factors supporting resilience.  Policies must be tailored to the needs of each community.  These must identify and provided targeted assistance to the most vulnerable.  Our research identified that those who were economically marginalised, older in age (over 55) and less well educated were at risk.  

• Accurate and timely communications in advance are critical to preparedness and must be a core component of emergency management.  One important and related finding from our research was that prior experience sometimes resulted in an unhelpful “wait and see” attitude which was detrimental to preparedness. Positive role models for disaster preparedness can increase individuals’ disaster resilience through powerful social learning so their promotion should be a component of disaster policies and initiatives.

• As preparedness was predicted by financial capacity, policies and programs need to provide specific assistance to those whose financial circumstances prevent them from adequately preparing for disasters. This may take the form of subsidised insurance to diminish dependence upon charity assistance for disasters.  

• Prompt restoration of infrastructure and essential services were critical to community and individual resilience.  Planning to strengthen these services, by examining system weakness and vulnerabilities, should be a priority.

• Policies and initiatives must also recognise the importance of social connectedness in building community resilience, by fostering stronger connections between neighbours and increasing a community’s sense of place though local community programs.

• Education needs to play a prominent role in promoting adaptation to climate change and, as a corollary, enhancing disaster resilience.  Our results showed gaps in awareness and understanding of climate change in the community, which will prevent appropriate adaptation to climate change risks, as well as significant mistrust of sources of climate change information.  We suggest that schools are the most appropriate forum for climate change information, with up to date evidence-based information about the risks and responses needed for climate change. There is a corresponding need to ensure that current and future teachers are aware of climate change science by developing appropriate training in this regard to correct gaps in their knowledge and understanding. 

View the final report