The Fire, The Virus, The Violence: Australia And The Lessons Of Natural Disasters
Local officials and public health experts warn that domestic violence is spiking in Australia as the country deals with the aftermath of catastrophic fires paired with the global pandemic.
The fires killed at least 35 people and destroyed nearly 2,000 houses in the southeastern part of the country in 2019 and early 2020, leaving thousands of Australians jobless and still in temporary housing as the coronavirus pandemic swept through with its widespread lockdowns, illness and economic pain.
"People are dealing with change of income, change of accommodation relationship breakdown because of the strain of what's going on — potentially exposure to violence," warned Lisa Gibbs, a public health researcher who leads community resilience research at the Centre for Disaster Management and Public Safety at the University of Melbourne, during recent testimony before Australia's Royal Commission hearings about the fires. "All of these factors undermine people's capacity to deal with what's happening."
Australia's concerns about the rise in family violence after a natural disaster stretch back to research conducted in the wake of Australia's deadliest fire event: the 2009 Black Saturday blazes.
Studies found the blazes were associated with an increase in family violence in the worst-affected communities. In one report, the percentage of women in badly burned areas who said they experienced physical violence was seven times that of women in areas that had been only moderately or minimally affected by the fires. Research in the U.S. has found a similar connection between hurricanes and interpersonal violence. In the aftermath of both sorts of disasters, loss of income was one factor associated with an increase in violence.
That's a particular concern now, as the COVID-19 pandemic strains societal and household resources, and forces families to stay indoors together more than they usually would.
Authorities in the state of New South Wales say domestic violence reports have increased 30% or more in some parts of Sydney during the coronavirus crisis. In the U.S., reports of domestic violence have also shot up in many places.
"This data is alarming, but not unexpected," said Delia Donovan, the interim leader of the organization Domestic Violence NSW, in a statement about the Australian data earlier this month. "It is widely understood from global research that major events such as health pandemics, natural disasters and recessions tragically result in increased domestic and family violence."
Yet, in both the U.S. and Australia, it is still difficult for many people to talk publicly about violence at home, especially during and after a disaster.
"Talking about family violence after disaster is not a welcome thing," says Debra Parkinson, a women's health researcher at Monash University in Melbourne who studied family violence in towns that were severely burned in 2009. "We had a lot of pushback from even trauma counselors and from community members saying 'Who are you to come into this traumatized community and talk about family violence? You are adding to the pressures.' "
Parkinson says such concerns are misplaced. "My argument is, when you ignore [family violence after disasters] it's not good for anyone," she says. "It's not good for the women and the children. And it's certainly not good for the men either."
In interviews with NPR conducted earlier this year, survivors of Australia's 2009 fires echo that sentiment. More than a decade later, they're still feeling the effects and warn that communities that avoid talking about post-disaster family violence do so at their own peril.
A 'pretty horrendous night'
Jodie Thorneycroft woke up on Feb. 7, 2009 with a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. Thorneycroft had lived in the fire-prone foothills and mountains north of Melbourne her entire life. She knew what fire weather felt like — hot, hazy, windy. By midday, it was already over 100 degrees F, with gusty winds.
"I just knew something was wrong that day," she says. "You could just feel it."
He was a fragile character before, but he was a whole egg. Whatever happened to him through the fires smashed him. ... And his moral compass was decimated.
So, when she heard that a fire had broken out near her town of Kinglake, she drove home from work to tell her husband she wanted to evacuate. "I said, 'I'm out. I'm leaving the mountain. I don't feel right.' " she recalls. "And he just looked at me and said, 'Oh, don't worry about it. If there's a fire I'll save the house.' "
She left. He stayed. The fire moved closer.
A few hours later he called her, frantic. "He was screaming and yelling, saying, 'I'm on the roof. I'm stuck. I can't get down. I can't see. I'm gonna die. Everything's on fire. It's raining fire.' "
"So yeah," Thorneycroft says. "It was a pretty horrendous night."
Thorneycroft's husband survived, as did their home. But all of their neighbors lost their houses, and some of them died in the flames.
"We kept being told how lucky we were that we still had homes," she says. "And I'm going 'Yeah, I'm really so grateful for that. But all of a sudden everything's gone.' " Most of the town's businesses were destroyed. Schools were closed. The rhythms of everyday life were totally disrupted in town.
"It was eerie," Thorneycroft says. And the lack of normalcy affected everyone — even those who had not lost homes or loved ones in the fires. "It's difficult to put into words unless you've lived through it. Your home is your family. Your community is your extended family, and that's your safe place. And then all of a sudden it's gone. It's really hard to ground yourself again."
Anger 'burst out'
In the weeks and months after the fire, Thorneycroft and others in the area that had burned started to see and hear about alarming behavior in their community. "There was a lot of concern about men not expressing how they were feeling and how they were dealing with the recovery," she says. "A lot of people took on drugs [or] alcohol. Risk-taking taking behavior."
Many studies have documented how alcohol and drug abuse are associated with intimate partner violence. Financial hardship and loss of employment are also linked to family violence, both of which are more likely after a major fire or during an economic meltdown.
"It became, I'm going to say, 'normal,' " to hear about domestic violence in the months after the 2009 blaze says Thorneycroft. "You know what I mean? It was just ... normal."
Others who survived the fires say they noticed a similar trend.
Another longtime resident of the town of Kinglake, Daryl Taylor, recalls that family violence was so common after the 2009 fires that virtually everyone knew someone who was affected.
"I noticed more violence after the fires," says Andrew Wilson-Annan, a volunteer firefighter who was deployed to help fight the fires and also to help one of the most damaged towns, Marysville, with its recovery plan. "It makes sense. People are in these traumatic situations, these pressurized situations, and I think it exacerbated many behaviors that were, maybe, already there. I saw a lot of people struggling with their emotions."
Lyn Gunter, who represented the worst-affected area, was on the regional political council at the time, and says she was concerned about the emotional outbursts she saw from men in public. "[Emotions] got bottled up and then anger burst out. Real anger," she remembers.
I couldn't go out without people asking me 'Why haven't you got it together? Why haven't you got your garden fixed? Why haven't you got your house done yet? What are you doing with your life?
In fact, Gunter says, men in her own family struggled with substance abuse and uncontrolled anger after the fires. One man in her family agreed to see a mental health professional after multiple outbursts that stopped short of physical violence but left Gunter concerned for her safety. She insisted he seek help. Another man in her family failed to control his behavior, she says, and ended up getting divorced after the fires.
"There were a lot of separations," Gunter says. "A lot of separations."
He was in his 'tough-man role'
Even today, it's hard to know how widespread family violence was after the 2009 fires, because the government in the state of Victoria did not begin collecting and reporting police data on alleged domestic violence until 2010.
But research conducted after the fires confirmed that both women and men noticed an uptick in such violence for years after the blazes were over. The more severely a community was burned, the data suggest, the greater the subsequent incidence of in domestic violence.
As for why the spike in family violence occurred, Parkinson's research — which was based on interviews with nearly 50 women and 40 men who survived the fires — offers the most detailed look at what factors may have contributed to the aggression.
In the interviews, women described how their husbands failed to cope with feelings of powerlessness, loss of purpose, responsibility and frustration. The subsequent studies published anonymized excerpts of the interviews.
"What's happened since the fires is, there seems to be no control on his emotions," one woman said. "Where once he was able to moderate, or at least there was some kind of understanding to his rage and anger — there was some context — now there's no context to his rage. It's just completely random."
It's like he died. It's like I'm a widow but the corpse is still here to beat me up.
"My husband says, 'I nearly died, so I should be able to do whatever I want.' Which I can understand," another woman said. "But it took me months and months to work out that I nearly died too. ... He really embraced the whole 'I can be an absolute prick to everybody and I can get away with it because I can say I've been through the fires and I'm traumatized."
"I couldn't get through to [my partner]," said another woman. "He was in his tough-man role. [It] took me a year to get through."
Men described feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities. "I couldn't go out without people asking me 'Why haven't you got it together? Why haven't you got your garden fixed? Why haven't you got your house done yet? What are you doing with your life? Why haven't you gone back to work? Why haven't you?' " one man told researchers.
Others described feeling depressed or anxious, but also worried that if they expressed their feelings to friends or co-workers they would be seen as weak or unstable. So they kept their feelings to themselves, with disastrous consequences.
"He was a fragile character before, but he was a whole egg," one woman said of her partner. "Whatever happened to him through the fires smashed him. Whereas a stronger shell might have held, he was smashed, and his moral compass was decimated."
"It's like he died," said another. "It's like I'm a widow but the corpse is still here to beat me up."
"How can you read these and not think this is a problem?" Parkinson says.
Disaster is no excuse
There is some evidence that the link between family violence and bushfires is entering the public consciousness in Australia. While the fires were still burning in December 2019, comments about the issue by a women's health activist sparked a mild media frenzy.
In the last two months, Debra Parkinson has accepted dozens of training requests from the Red Cross, counselors, local officials and firefighters who want to know more about how they can help identify and prevent family violence.
She and her colleagues have also designed postcard-sized cheat sheets for social workers, fire fighters, police, chaplains and others who are involved in helping communities recover after bushfires. The cards say at the top "DISASTER IS NO EXCUSE FOR FAMILY VIOLENCE" and a script for how to ask and respond if someone is in danger, including "Are you safe at home?" and "What you've described to me is violence, and it's a crime." The contact information for domestic violence hotlines and other resources are printed next to the script.
"It's not all that hard to make it clear that '[Violence] is likely to happen. It's been documented that it's going to happen for some families, and here's what you do,' " says Parkinson. "There's a constructive way to handle it."
As of last year, 30,000 cards had been distributed across the Australian state of Victoria.
Parkinson is cautiously optimistic that increasing awareness of family violence will help limit its damage this time around. "Maybe it will be better," she says. "I hope so. Changing gender stereotypes and our expectations for men and women is difficult. But yes, I am hopeful. Because there is no excuse for violence."
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