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February 22 Flood Reflections 1 - Volunteer Coordination

Originally published on social media on 6 March, 2022

The past week of flood clean-up has revealed efficiencies and deficiencies of different models of volunteer coordination that we need to reflect on so we can improve for future climate disasters…

(I know the clean-up is still continuing, but I wanted to get these thoughts down while they’re fresh... and let’s be real, global warming means we don’t know how far away the next severe weather event will be, so we need to have these discussions now rather than waiting for some hypothetical ‘post-crisis’ calm that never comes)

After Brisbane’s 2011 floods, with comparatively little top-down coordination, thousands of people travelled into flood-affected communities to help with the clean-up. Many drove in private cars, causing serious congestion issues leading in and out of flooded suburbs. Organisation was mostly either very decentralised or non-existent. Some streets got heaps of timely and much-needed help from volunteers, while other areas were initially overlooked. Some volunteers engaged in risky behaviour, or rocked up without any protective gear or useful cleaning equipment. Some volunteers got a little carried away, throwing out muddy possessions that the owners would’ve preferred to clean and keep.

This time, Brisbane’s mayor got on the front foot and announced a formal signup process for volunteers, telling the general public not to rush straight into flooded neighbourhoods to clean up as soon as the waters receded.

There were arguably reasonable justifications behind this approach, but the centralised signup process managed by Brisbane City Council was also arguably quite politically advantageous for the mayor, because the ‘Mud Army’ is a positive symbol/phenomenon that politicians can get extra kudos for being associated with.

The highest flood peak was on Monday morning, 28 February, by which point thousands of Brisbane residents were already eager to help out. But none of the volunteers who signed up through the ‘official’ platform were mobilised by BCC until Saturday, 5 March, and by the end of Saturday, Brisbane City Council declared that: “Due to the Mud Army 2.0's incredible effort on Saturday 5 March, Brisbane City Council has confirmed that the Mud Army 2.0 can now put down their tools. Volunteers are no longer needed to clean-up Brisbane on Sunday 6 March.”

But as others have rightly pointed out, volunteers were actually needed for cleanup from Monday/Tuesday onwards, and were still needed in some areas even after the ‘official’ Mud Army was stood down.

BCC created a widely-promoted signup process to seize a large chunk of volunteer energy, then held off deploying it until most of the immediate flood clean-up work had already happened. This is a pretty counter-productive form of volunteer management – recruiting lots of people, then steering them away from taking action when it’s needed.

Meanwhile, during the first week of March, thousands of residents were already out on the ground helping clean up... From what I saw in my ward, perhaps 90% of the labour-intensive work of sweeping mud out of flooded properties and carrying damaged furniture to the footpath was undertaken by volunteers BEFORE BCC’s Mud Army 2.0 ever hit the streets.

In some cases, this work was done by immediate neighbours autonomously heading down the street or around the corner to see where they were needed, or by people travelling from slightly further away and just getting stuck in, much like in 2011.

In other cases, it was existing networks of relatives, friends, work colleagues or community groups mobilising to help specific residents or businesses that they were connected to.

And in some areas, including Brisbane’s inner-south side, we saw an ecosystem of community groups, elected representatives and political parties taking on partial coordination roles, recording requests for assistance and advising volunteers where they were most needed.

From what I saw, these less-centralised forms of volunteer organising were much quicker and more efficient than the top-down coordination approach taken by Brisbane City Council.

River mud is much easier to clean off while it’s still wet, and the sooner you get muddy, damp furniture out of a flooded property, the less likely it is that mould and damp will spread up to higher levels. So it was good that local groups essentially ignored the local and state government messaging and started the clean-up sooner.

In my ward, a LOT of volunteer work was directed by the Greens, who reassigned federal election campaign staff to work on supporting the flood recovery effort. I’d venture to suggest that vollies organised through Greens networks got a lot more done in suburbs like West End and East Brisbane than those who signed up through BCC and who then waited several days before being mobilised.

Some of the factors contributing to the delay in mobilising the ‘official Mud Army’ included predictions of more severe weather, and uncertainty about how high subsequent tides would rise through the week. There were also a bunch of other risks that government officials would have been worried about – electrical hazards, exposure to faecal matter etc.

But going into people’s flooded homes to clear out muddy furniture is still an inherently risky business (BCC seemed to understand this – the liability disclaimer on its Mud Army 2.0 webpage is VERY broad)... You can partially minimise the risk to the coordinating organisation (in this case, BCC) by delaying how soon after a disaster you send volunteers out, and taking a really bureaucratic approach in terms of keeping rolls and making people sign waivers etc, but the individuals who actually go into muddy homes are still risking their safety.

I was already on the ground cleaning up under houses when some of the ‘official’ Mud Army volunteers were finally deployed around East Brisbane on Saturday morning. They arrived in a bus, kitted out in protective gear, with brand new brooms and clipboard-wielding council staff briefing them and directing them. They were all really eager to get stuck in, and one of the volunteers complained to me that it had taken two hours of marshalling, transportation and briefing before they even got to any of the houses that needed help.

When I saw that there was a surplus of volunteers on the street, I asked one of the council workers if some of the volunteers could be directed to instead pick up a lot of the rubbish and detritus that had accumulated along the edge of Norman Creek. But the officer’s instructions were clear – volunteers were only to assist with carrying out muddy furniture and cleaning out homes. Picking up rubbish along the waterway would have to wait for some other group of volunteers.

The slow deployment and the narrow restrictions regarding what Mud Army volunteers were instructed to assist with obviously wasn’t the volunteers’ fault. Nor is it the fault of council officers. It’s a predictable feature of highly-centralised, top-down volunteer coordination by risk-averse bureaucratic entities.

Locally coordinated volunteers can mobilise more quickly, and can adjust their plans more flexibly around tidal peaks and predicted storms. Whereas if you’re organising thousands of volunteers to all gather at a central suburban meeting point, prepping them to participate in a very specific activity, then bussing them across the city to locations that were only roughly scouted in advance, you can’t easily delay the mobilisation while a storm passes, or redeploy people to different tasks.

I should add that I’ve heard from a couple of people who contacted Brisbane City Council to request help from the Mud Army 2.0, were told that they’d be assisted, but then never received assistance. I suspect this is because rather than assigning volunteers to specific households that had asked for help, BCC just bussed volunteers into general neighbourhoods depending on where they’d received requests from, and the council officers directing volunteers on the ground weren’t actually double-checking whether all the specific household requests had been met.

On the flipside, there were probably also a couple examples where a resident got in touch with an organisation to ask for help, but if that organisation was too busy and stretched, the request wasn’t passed on to other groups that had more volunteer capacity. In this respect, shared online documents came in handy. By recording needs online in one place that anyone could access, it was easier for different groups and individuals to proactively reach out to offer help without a central coordinating entity acting as a bottleneck.

In times of crisis, it’s ideal to have volunteers who’ve been collectively organised beforehand – people who already know and trust each other and are accustomed to working together – and who are directly connected to the communities requiring help. Such groups can be directed towards (or can proactively identify) areas of need, and autonomously assist in whatever ways they deem necessary. In the best case scenario, they are already organised and specially trained through channels like the State Emergency Service or Rural Fire Service.

The second-best option is probably for volunteers who aren’t already part of a community network or organisation to sign up to be directed by a local group that has a better sense of where people are needed on the ground.

One way that Brisbane City Council could have facilitated this would have been to collect volunteer contact details centrally, ask different local groups how many volunteers they needed, then pass on contact details.

Even when Brisbane experiences a severe flood, the majority of residents across the wider city aren’t directly affected by flooding of their home, which means there are plenty of potential volunteers available – you just have to get them where they’re most needed.

Other kinds of climate disasters – where a larger proportion of the city is directly impacted and fewer volunteers are available – would be quite another matter. So we definitely need to improve our systems for mobilising and coordinating volunteer energy.

I’m still working out what I think of all this, and looking forward to having further conversations over the coming weeks to understand the different experiences of people who volunteered or asked for help through different channels. I don’t think anyone has a complete picture of how the flood clean-up has progressed so far, or exactly what else still needs to be done.

But if you signed up to volunteer on the flood clean-up, didn’t get called up for some reason, and are now feeling like you wish you’d done more to help, remember there are plenty of other ways to support your neighbours and build more resilient communities...

Start a community garden. Join a bushcare group. Or rock up to the nearest community centre and ask them what they need help with. There’s still a heck of a lot to do.

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