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Rural: In the aftermath of trauma

Rural: In the aftermath of trauma

By Katherine Argentino

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By volunteering on the ground after the bushfires lawyer Katherine Argentino gained invaluable insight into her East Gippsland community.

In late December 2019, I moved my young family from Melbourne to Bairnsdale in East Gippsland. A week later we were confronted with a bushfire on a scale never seen before. We live in town but could see flames from our house. Huge plumes of smoke filled the sky. Small surrounding towns were being decimated and people were displaced. I wanted to help.

I was due to start work at Warren, Graham and Murphy Lawyers (WG&M), a well-established Gippsland firm, in January 2020. I registered to volunteer for Disaster Legal Help Victoria (DLHV) and was rostered to attend the Bushfire Recovery Centre in Bairnsdale. WG&M unwaveringly supported me to volunteer as much as was needed.

The recovery centre was a hive of activity. I had not responded to a disaster before so there was a lot to learn. It was obvious from the outset that in the aftermath of a disaster, a client’s immediate needs are food, clothing and shelter. The last thing on their mind is legal problems. 

As the weeks post-disaster go by, legal issues start to arise and people turn their minds to matters such as fencing, lost documents and insurance. Some matters can be resolved on the spot with general advice, others need to be referred for ongoing legal assistance. 

Clients A and B attended because they were having a dispute with their neighbour about fencing. They lost fences, sheds and property in the bushfire. Their house had been spared, aside from some electrical damage. They made an insurance claim for the loss and damage and their claim was settled quickly. 

During my conversation with them, it occurred to me that the assessment of their insurance claim may be inadequate. I registered their details with Justice Connect and WG&M agreed to help them with their fencing and insurance matters pro bono. 

We resolved the fencing dispute informally. We requested a review of the insurer’s decision to pay them for repairs and not the full replacement of their fire damaged sheds. Last month we received news that the insurance complaint had been successful; they would receive additional funds to rebuild their sheds. They described the result as a massive relief. The stress of the clean-up and rebuild has taken its toll. Now, just over 12 months post bushfires, they finally feel like they are getting back on their feet.

When I met Daniel he looked exhausted. He needed a shower and clean clothes. He and his mother whom he lived with had lost everything; their entire home and property was destroyed. He was supported by a friend who had encouraged him to seek help. He did not think he needed it. We made some inquiries with his bank and insurance companies. Unfortunately, he was uninsured and had to stop work to handle the dire situation he faced. The recovery centre remained open for more than a year and so whenever Daniel had questions or needed documents witnessed, he felt comfortable dropping in for support. Last month I was stopped by Daniel in the local supermarket, he looked fresh and happy. He is doing much better. They have habitable accommodation on their property thanks to generous donations, government and community support. I wished him all the best with the ongoing recovery. He gave my four-year-old shopping helper (arguably hinderer) a high five. It was heart-warming. 

Legal support is a critical component of the response to a disaster such as bushfires. Often, people affected by disaster do not realise that they have legal problems. As lawyers we can use our skills to support people in crisis to identify legal issues caused by the disaster and work closely with the community sector to ensure that disaster affected people get the legal help they need as part of a holistic approach to disaster recovery. 

By volunteering on the ground after the bushfires I gained invaluable insight into the community, I met incredible people and built enduring relationships. I am grateful to each of the clients I met who shared their story with me. The community has endured a traumatic experience; lives and homes were lost, extensive amounts of flora and fauna were destroyed. Recovery is a long and hard road.

The most valuable thing I learned from my volunteering experience with DLHV is that this community is strong and I am proud to be a part of it. What a privilege it is to be able to live and work in East Gippsland. ■


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