Recovery

The State Recovery Plan 2014 Bushfires was updated on 25 March 2014 to include all state recovery coordination activities associated with the Hazelwood mine fire.45 The Plan sets out a multi agency strategic approach to management and implementation of recovery activities after the 2014 bushfires.

Mr Hall informed the Board that from early March 2014 the Hazelwood Mine Fire Recovery Committee, chaired by DHS, coordinated recovery at the regional level. The Committee comprised representatives from the Latrobe City Council, the Department of Health, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI), the Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure (DTPLI), the Department of State Development and Business Innovation (DSDBI), the Environment Protection Authority (EPA), the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and the Regional Incident Controller.46

On 7 March 2014, DHS developed a Hazelwood Mine Fire Recovery Transition Plan, which was approved by the Regional Coordinator, and then distributed to the Latrobe City Council and various state departments.47 The Plan outlines the arrangements for planning relevant to delivery of emergency recovery activities in the lead up to formal transition to recovery.

On the same day, DHS and Latrobe City Council developed the Hazelwood Mine Fire Recovery Plan.48 The plan sets out the arrangements for coordinating and managing the planning and delivery of emergency recovery activities across the affected region. It also articulates the goal and objectives of recovery, governance, reporting and communication arrangements for six recovery streams. Responsibility for each of the six recovery streams is outlined in Figure 4.62.

Figure 4.62 Lead agency for streams of recovery49

Recovery stream

Lead agency/chair

Social and community DHS
Health Department of Health
Economic DSDBI
Built environment Local Government Victoria
Natural and agricultural environment DEPI
Community engagement DHS and Latrobe City Council

Under the Hazelwood Mine Fire Recovery Plan’s regional governance structure, a Community Recovery Committee and a Morwell Business Committee have been established. Both Committees have community membership.

RECOVERY INFORMATION

In his statement to the Board, Mr Hall outlined that on 10 March 2014, the Public Information Unit attached to the State Emergency Management Centre drafted a Recovery Community Engagement and Communications Plan. The Plan was based on strategies successfully used to guide recovery communications during previous events, and was designed to help direct appropriate communications and engagement activities as time and resources allowed.50

Mr Hall further explained that the Emergency Relief and Recovery Victoria website was updated daily and that the Victorian Emergency Recovery Information Line also provided information to the community. Details of the information provided through the recovery line were not provided to the Board.51

Specific information on recovery for the community was available in Morwell from 21 February 2014, through an information centre established by DHS and supported by the Latrobe City Council.

On 28 February 2014, the Latrobe City Council, in partnership with DHS, opened a Community Information and Recovery Centre in Morwell. The purpose of the centre was to be a one-stop shop for information, cleaning assistance and other support.52

Communications included 14 issues of a fortnightly recovery newsletter titled ‘Unite and Recover’ issued by the Council, and a twice weekly newsletter which was letter box dropped to all Morwell properties, with hard copies also distributed at community venues such as Morwell Neighbourhood House, Morwell railway station and aboard V/Line trains.53

CLEAN UP

Residents, businesses and not-for-profit organisations in Morwell and surrounding districts had to contend with smoke and ash, which settled on exterior and interior walls and surfaces, soft furnishings, carpet and clothing, in roof and wall cavities, and on vehicles and pathways. Ms Lisa Wilson, Gippsland Homeless Network Coordinator at Quantum, told the Board: ‘A layer of dirt had settled on everything in the house and it was extremely hard to lift. Outside a layer of black scum covered everything, not just the flat surfaces but the walls of the house as well’.54

A joint committee comprised of Local Government Victoria staff and Latrobe City Council officers commenced clean up planning. This committee consulted the community, talked to private contractors and submitted its plans to the State Crisis and Resilience Committee.55

On 28 February 2014, a further team was set up to explore options for a town clean up. DTPLI was responsible for coordinating the initial planning and development of options; Local Government Victoria was responsible for coordinating the implementation of a clean up plan in collaboration with Latrobe City Council; and the Latrobe City Council was responsible for local operational delivery.56

Prior to finalising and implementing the Morwell Clean-up Plan, Latrobe City Council engaged a number of local contractors to clean the Morwell central business district and the southern area of Morwell. This included high-pressure cleaning of paths, driveways and buildings, as well as cleaning windows and street furniture to remove dust, ash and debris from the smoke.57

On 10 March 2014, coordination of clean up at state level transitioned back to DHS, under state emergency management arrangements.58

On 18 March 2014, the Victorian Government announced a $2 million community assistance package to help with the clean up.59 The package offered professional cleaning of the homes of Home and Community Care residents, people assessed as having high needs because of their age, a disability or current health condition, and those who received a relocation grant through DHS.60 All residents were entitled to a clean up kit that included a bucket, gloves, hose nozzle, dust mask, information about how to clean effectively, and a laundry and car wash voucher to use at local businesses.61

According to DHS, as at 12 May 2014, 780 assisted clean ups were completed by professional cleaning services, 635 self cleanup kits and 713 laundry vouchers were distributed, 1,143 car wash vouchers were issued, and there were 418 loans of HEPA filter vacuum cleaners. Mr Hall anticipated that all assisted clean ups would be completed by the end of May 2014.62

In addition, DEECD arranged for comprehensive cleaning of Commercial Road Primary School, several learning centres, two Catholic schools and one non-government school, before the beginning of Term 2.63 Mr Robert Jackman, Morwell resident, informed the Board that ‘Sacred Heart Primary School was cleaned up by a professional cleaner over the school holidays. They did an amazing job cleaning the playground, the classrooms, computers and library books.’64

Mr Mitchell told the Board that the Latrobe City Council initially proposed that those who completed a self clean would be provided with vouchers to the value of $150 to obtain cleaning products of their choice, and that those eligible for an assisted clean up would get $750 worth of cleaning services per household, which included cleaning of roof cavities.65 Mr Mitchell detailed how the State Crisis and Resilience Committee scaled back the proposal and how the Council sought to obtain adequate resources by taking Local Government Victoria officers to visit a sample of properties.66 Mr Mitchell said that decisions about the scope of the clean up packages, the contents of the kits, and eligibility criteria, were determined by the Victorian Government.67 He also noted that the Council was instructed not to commence any work towards implementation of the clean up process, including taking steps to advertise for cleaning services or obtain quotes, until details of the clean up package were formally announced. This resulted in a three week delay between the announcement and the availability of clean up assistance to residents.68

The Council understood that the community’s expectations around clean up were not met:

Council is of the opinion that the reduced funding scope for the residential clean up, tasked to the Latrobe City Council for delivery has in many cases not met the needs and expectations of the community. Latrobe City Council has consistently received negative feedback from the community regarding the equipment provided… Limiting those who qualified for an assisted clean, along with delays in cleaning the homes of those who did qualify resulted in increased frustration and anger from some community members towards Council.69

COMMUNITY RESPONSE TO CLEAN UP

It is apparent from community consultations conducted by the Board that the community was not clear about the source of decision-making and funding relevant to the clean up.

Many members of the community were of the view that the clean up package came too late. Consequently, many families undertook their own cleaning. As Ms Wilson stated:

Unbeknown to me my family had instigated a huge clean up of the house so that we were able to come home early and not have to clean the house. All the surfaces and linen had been cleaned but the house still smelt a bit. They even cleaned the engagement cards and put them in a plastic bag for us. I found the assistance by my family so overwhelming and I was so grateful to be able to be back home.70

For others, the clean up package was not comprehensive enough because it only offered vacuuming and dusting, not cleaning of roof cavities. Mr Whittaker informed the Board:

The Latrobe City Council provided me with limited support during the fires. What I did receive was useless. About one month after the fires had started, the Council provided me with a plastic bucket with a pair of gloves that were too big. I also received a couple of face masks and some vouchers. I did not get any information with the material about how to clean the ash properly or in a safe way. I thought it was a mickey mouse solution to look like they were doing something.71

Ms Andrew stated:

I borrowed a vacuum cleaner from the recovery centre to clean the house. However, there is still dust falling from the ceiling. It is particularly noticeable over the bath tub. As it is a rental house, I have spoken to the real estate agent about…a number of issues regarding the house. I suspect that [the landlord] does not have adequate insurance.72

In some cases, people had expectations that a full decontamination of their properties was required for example, replacement of roof and ceiling cavities and replacement of insulation. Some people also perceived that ash residue or particulate matter in houses made them unsafe.

In her statement to the Board, Ms Brooke Burke, Morwell Business Owner, wrote:

I am very concerned about our house and the ash left in the roof. Since we have returned home the kids have been sneezing a lot and I think it was because of the ash in the roof. I visited the recovery centre for assistance and they told me to have a look in the roof, but also said to be careful with the ash as it should be treated like asbestos.73

Initially, both HEPA filter vacuum cleaners and high pressure hoses were available for hire. The community’s response to this initiative was that it was out of touch, as high pressure hoses are not recommended for use in Morwell due to the risk of asbestos. Ms Hamilton, explained that:

… incorrect and unsafe information was being given to our members about cleaning up. For example, the Council was going to provide residents with high pressure hoses to clean their houses, despite the dangers of the use of high pressure hoses on and around asbestos. I believe that this practice is also against the EPA law. The Council had previous experience with the problems created by the use of high pressure hoses on asbestos so I was surprised, to say the least, that the Council was encouraging the use of high pressure hoses for clean up with such a large number of houses that contain asbestos in the Morwell area. The pressure hoses were not provided due to these issues but only after I, and others, made a fuss through the local media.74

A few people were critical of Latrobe City Council cleaning public places when they considered
that priority should be given to cleaning people’s houses.

Ms Lund informed the Board that the ‘community also saw the bucket program as an insult’.75
Ms Hamilton expressed a similar sentiment:

It was like feeding strawberries to an elephant for goodness sakes. A bucket with, I think it had four masks in it with some gloves and a couple of washing vouchers, for the magnitude of the fire that took place with all that smoke and ash, and the ash was horrendous.76

The eligibility restrictions on the assisted clean up, like the respite and relocation eligibility requirements, offended some in the community. As the Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) noted in its submission:

The clean-up and relocation assistance for concession and low income households caused division within the community. Many workers in Morwell are on very low wages, including staff of community organisations, yet (they) were not eligible for assistance.77

Mr Hall considered the clean up packages to be generous. He informed the Board that they were calculated on the assumption that 1,900 households would receive professional cleaning services. Mr Hall stated that the generosity of the package is demonstrated by the fact that the current take-up rates of these cleaning services would not exhaust the fund. He also explained that it is unusual for the Victorian Government to provide domestic clean up services following emergencies. Clean up funding is usually limited to public (Council) assets and infrastructure and no similar assistance has been previously provided for bushfires and floods.78

FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE FOR BUSINESSES

Local businesses, like residents, were affected by smoke and ash from the Hazelwood mine fire, especially those in the Commercial Road business district close to the mine. Some workers experienced adverse health effects. Many business owners told the Board that they experienced a drop in revenue, although some business owners said that there has been an upturn, especially in hospitality businesses, from the influx of firefighters and government staff.

At the community consultations the Board heard several people express concern about the broader financial impacts of the fire, such as depreciation of house prices. Some also mentioned the stigma attached to Morwell and the Latrobe Valley as a result of the fire and the concern that this would negatively impact the value of property in the region.

State Financial Assistance

On 3 March 2014, the Victorian Government announced the establishment of a $2 million Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry Morwell Business Relief Fund (VECCI grant). Under this scheme owner managers of actively trading businesses who employ less than 20 employees and can demonstrate loss as a result of the mine fire, are eligible for grants of between $1,000 and $10,000. The scheme was extended into April and as at 23 April 2014, more than 180 grant applications had been approved, totalling over $1 million.79

A Small Business Bus service enabled free mentoring and face-to-face advice to over 100 businesses on six days in March 2014. Four workshops with 58 participants relating to business continuity recovery were held, as well as door knocking of local businesses to advise on available assistance. A Small Business Mentoring Service was also available.80

Ms Burke stated to the Board:

My business partner and I went to the information bus and spoke to a man who told us to apply for the small business grant, which would be announced soon. He was helpful. He told us to put on every single loss we had suffered, including the extra time we spent at the business caused by the fire. Overall, we estimated our loss at approximately $11,000 and we applied for a business grant for this amount. We were awarded $5,000 on 24 April 2014.81

An allocation was made in the Victorian State Budget 2014–15 of $2.35 million to support the economic recovery of communities following the bushfires in January and February 2014 across Victoria (including the Latrobe Valley), which included $1.2 million for a 2014 Bushfires Economic Recovery Fund.82

In addition, eligible small businesses in Morwell, such as primary producers and not-for-profit organisations, indirectly affected by a loss of income as a result of the Hazelwood mine fire, could apply for $100,000 in concessional loans under the jointly-funded Commonwealth and State Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements. The loans could be used to fund essential working capital, salaries and wages, creditors, rent, and essential supplies.83

Ms Rita Payette, a local farmer, reported that she and her husband were unsuccessful for the VECCI grant because they were deemed not to be Morwell residents despite their property adjoining the mine on the Driffield side. Ms Payette informed the Board she and her husband had applied for the concessional loan.84

For the longer term, the Economic Recovery Sub-committee is working with the Community Business Recovery Committee to promote economic development in Morwell, and has developed an Economic Recovery Plan.85

GDF Suez financial assistance

GDF Suez has contributed to two initiatives to revive the Morwell community. First, it has established a Community Social Capital Committee with a grant of $500,000 to identify initiatives to build the social capital of Morwell. The Committee is made up of representatives from local community groups. Second, it launched an initiative called Revive Morwell, under which every household received a $100 gift card to spend in the Morwell retail sector.86

INSURANCE CLAIMS

Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) representatives attended several community forums and also attended the Community Information and Recovery Centre once a week to provide individual free advice on insurance claims to residents.87

At community consultations, several people asked why some insurance claims had been paid but many had not. The Board followed this up with the ICA. The ICA’s response to the Board was that insurance policies might cover damage from fire on the property or from a fire coming within a specified distance of the property, but not damage from fires occurring further away. Limiting policies in this way is not unique to properties in Morwell or the Latrobe Valley. Different insurers may not limit their policies and therefore claims for smoke damage can be made. Where an insurer refuses an insurance claim, the claimant can contact the Financial Ombudsman Service to dispute the refusal.88

Mr Mitchell told the Board that Mr Alan Wilson, an insurance broker, had advocated on behalf of Morwell residents with limited cover, to seek assistance with cleaning roof cavities.89 Ms Burke gave evidence to the Board that her insurance company had made an ex gratia payment to her.90

PETS AND LIVESTOCK

In its submission to the Board, the Victorian Government stated that during and after the mine fire, Animal Health and Welfare Liaison Officers worked with local veterinarians, Latrobe City Council, and animal aid networks on companion animal matters, to ensure arrangements were in place to support residents and to monitor any impact on animals. Information on caring for animals as a result of the fires was provided by DEPI to the Latrobe City Council for insertion in its residents information pack. Officers also liaised with local veterinarians and other key stakeholders to monitor agricultural production and animal health.91 DEPI is in regular contact with industry regulators and key agriculture stakeholders. At the time of the submission, no negative agricultural impacts had been reported by producers.92

The Board heard from several people at its community consultations who were worried about the health of their pets and livestock. The Virtual Operations Support team described in its submission the experience of one of its volunteers to the Board:

We had people telling of their cats with Kidney and Urinary infections; of asthma like symptoms in their Dogs and Cats; of birds being lethargic, slow, unresponsive. One of the signs of Carbon Monoxide poisoning in animals is, lethargy. These animals were clearly being effected [sic] by the smoke and ash. They needed help. And we tried desperately to get it to them, only we kept being shunted around. Told to try this number and that number. Talk to this person or that person? Finally, I did get a phone call from Latrobe City Council, telling me that they had a person from DEPI looking into the Animal Respite Centre they were going to set up …As far as I know nothing ever came of it.93

LONGER-TERM RECOVERY

The Latrobe City Council, with support from DHS, is managing the longer-term recovery of the community. In his statement to the Board, Mr Hall outlined that longer-term recovery is intended to be a community-led recovery process that began with the clean up. This is actively monitored and supported by the State Recovery Coordination Team.

VCOSS made a written submission to the Board reflecting feedback from community sector organisations in the Latrobe Valley. VCOSS argued that:

Victorian emergency management policies make provisions to address communities’ needs in relation to the preparation, response, relief and recovery phases of emergency management. However the needs of people who are vulnerable or disadvantaged have not been specifically considered within these, and there remain significant policy gaps in how to most effectively build the resilience of and meet the needs of these groups following an emergency event.94

As VCOSS points out, community sector organisations expressed concern that they would be dealing with the aftermath for a long time to come, and did not know if this was being planned for or funded accordingly.

On 13 March 2014, two clinical psychologists engaged by DHS, Dr Rob Gordon and Dr David Younger, ran two community sessions. The first session was directed to assisting Latrobe City Council staff and government to improve engagement with local residents. The second session was directed to assisting health professionals provide ongoing mental health support to the community as required.95

The 2014–2015 Victorian Budget includes $673,500 for psychosocial initiatives in Morwell.96