‘Don’t think it won’t happen’: Far too many Aussies unprepared for disasters

Fires put Banksia Grove residents on alert this week.

Fires put Banksia Grove residents on alert this week. Photo: Facebook/Jais Anu

As residents were forced to flee their homes amid severe bushfires in Western Australia this week, Australians are being reminded no one is immune to extreme weather – and to always be prepared.

Having worked as a Red Cross emergency service volunteer for 17 years, Western Sydney-based Liz Cater is one of the first faces victims of disasters see when they step into evacuation centres in the midst of natural disasters, such as the 2022 Lismore flood.

Cater provides “psychological first aid” to the people affected by disasters; this can mean everything from helping people to get in contact with their families to supporting them through the process of contacting  insurance companies.

She told TND the work has been almost non-stop since the 2019 bushfires, and the mindset of people coming in for assistance can range from total relief upon reaching a safe place, to panic for people or pets left behind.

“Imagine having a family, and the children are at school, one partner is at work in the city, the other partner is in the Blue Mountains,” Cater said.

“That partner [in the Blue Mountains] would have had to evacuate, but they don’t really know where the children are, and they can’t contact their partner.

“That’s a very, very scary kind of thing.”

Liz Cater (right) has dealt with many traumatised Australians in the aftermath of disasters. Photo: NRMA Insurance

Cater herself had a close brush with disaster: Despite living in a low-flood risk area with no fire-prone bush, a neighbour’s house caught alight one night, leaving Cater standing in her backyard at midnight with a hose in her hand before fire crews turned up.

“I instantly thought about [what I should] do in order to save my house, or what if I had to evacuate,” she said.

“The thing is, once you get scared and once that stress hits, it’s very difficult to think practically.”

NRMA Insurance research shows almost half of Australians don’t know what steps they need to take to prepare for an extreme weather emergency.

The idea of ‘it will not happen to me’ is the number one barrier to extreme weather preparation, NRMA found.

Yet, more than a third of Australians say they have been impacted by an extreme weather event, with 17 per cent of those affected even having to evacuate their home.

Cater said even if you’re living in an area with low natural disaster risk, events such as severe hailstorms or building fires are possibilities no matter where you are.

“Don’t ever think it will not happen to you.”

Get your evacuation kit ready

Although 60 per cent of home claims NRMA Insurance receives are due to extreme weather, the company’s research shows only 26 per cent of Australians have an emergency plan for extreme weather events.

“Over the past few years Australians have faced some of the most devastating natural disasters in decades,” NRMA Insurance CEO Julie Batch said.

“Taking steps before an event happens goes a long way in protecting yourself, your loved ones, your community and the things you care about.”

A disaster could catch you unawares at any time or place, and nothing could prepare you for the loss of your home or loved ones.

But Cater said one thing you can do is have an emergency kit ready to go for each member of the household – including pets – in case you have to evacuate your home suddenly.

These kits should include items like essential medication, spare clothes, toiletries and a USB or hard drive containing important documents such as copies of your passport and license, as well as banking and insurance details.

“Having all that together is incredibly valuable, because then you know that all you have to do is grab that [when fleeing your home],” Cater said.

She also suggested rehearsing evacuations with your pets so you know how they’ll handle the process, and taking photos of items that you’re emotionally attached to but wouldn’t be able to bring if you have to flee, so you could still have a digital memory of the items.

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