Op-Eds and Commentaries

Rebuilding lives post-disaster: what is the role of social workers?

By Julie Drolet and Robin Ersing

Guardian Professional, Thursday 10 July 2014 17.53 EDT

Floods, wildfires, earthquakes, and hurricanes have the potential to devastate our way of life, and the cumulative effect of these disasters produces a significant personal, material and economic strain on individuals, communities, and the fiscal capacity of all levels of governments.

As more people are impacted by natural hazards due to the impact of climate change and other factors, disaster recovery takes longer and costs more. As governments propose more personal accountability and community resilience, and better planning, affected communities are increasingly challenged in long-term disaster recovery and reconstruction.

A symposium at the Joint World Conference on Social Work, Education and Social Development in Melbourne will present the results of an international partnership study on rebuilding lives post-disaster and share innovative community practices for sustainable development.

The study brought together a team of social work researchers, collaborators and partners to consider community-based disaster recovery practices in six countries – Canada, Australia, USA, India, Pakistan, and Taiwan.

The partnership approach allowed for shared learning and resources by comparing experiences at local and international levels.

Building on a previous study that considered the need for long-term disaster recovery in post-tsunami south India, the research partnership brought together co-investigators in the six countries and the UK. Each researcher had formal partnerships with community groups, non-profit organisations, government agencies and disaster recovery organisations.

It is crucial to develop new knowledge grounded in communities' experiences of disaster recovery. The research team conducted more than 70 interviews with disaster responders, volunteers and officials who played a formal role in recovery, and 12 focus groups with more than 120 people affected by a disaster in their community.

Researchers asked how the community had changed since the disaster and considered the roles played by government, disaster management and emergency preparedness, social work and social services in post-disaster activities, and discussed the role of gender, health, education and school infrastructure, and the impact of climate change.

The research aims to address longer-term disaster reconstruction challenges by exploring understandings of sustainability, equity and livelihood options among affected communities engaged in post-disaster reconstruction work; and to advance knowledge of community-based disaster mitigation strategies by compiling case studies on emergent best practice, policies, and lessons learned.

The experience of Volusia County, Florida

In 2004 and 2005, the area of Volusia County in central Florida absorbed the force of several strong hurricanes.

Volusia County is an agricultural area, comprised of several highly vulnerable populations. Qualitative methods were used to collect data on topics of community-based disaster preparedness and recovery strategies in the county, particularly among women and limited English proficient populations.

Results suggest that social networks were used by these vulnerable groups to mobilise local resources to promote sustainable recovery. A prime benefit to rural communities is the close-knit sense of mutual support that led to the creation of Alianza de Mujeres Activas (Alliance of Active Women). This group of women volunteers, most speaking limited English, was instrumental in helping distribute essential items such as water, food and first aid, and important information post-disaster to immigrant and migrant families.

Social workers and disaster service organisations can benefit by building trust with local groups such as AMA to aid in sustainable recovery efforts.

Our symposium event at the conference will share the results of the study, discussing what is known to work and what is challenging in long-term disaster recovery. The importance of community-led recovery and involving locals in decision-making processes will also be highlighted.

Social workers can play a potentially key role in disaster recovery by facilitating community development, restoring livelihoods, providing psychosocial support, and building capacity in local communities. There is also a need to build capacity in the social work profession for the integration of social, economic and environmental dimensions in policy and practice, and to develop curricula to better prepare social workers for the challenges ahead.

The conference in Melbourne will also see the launch of an invitation to the global social work community to refine approaches to disaster response internationally, in order to support the development of a further partnership study.

Julie Drolet is an associate professor at Thompson Rivers University in Canada; Robin Ersing is an associate professor at the University of South Florida. Their findings will be presented at the Joint World Conference on Social Work, Education and Social Development in Melbourne on Friday

Re-posted from http://www.theguardian.com/social-care-network/2014/jul/11/rebuilding-lives-post-disaster-role-social-workers.