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Responding to natural disasters

Volume 7 Number 3 March 14 - April 10 2011

Aerial photo of central Creswick township, showing flooded Creswick Creek and inundated football ground. The rooflines of University of Melbourne Creswick campus can be seen east of (above) the football ground.
Aerial photo of central Creswick township, showing flooded Creswick Creek and inundated football ground. The rooflines of University of Melbourne Creswick campus can be seen east of (above) the football ground.

Floods and cyclones in Australia and a devastating earthquake in New Zealand saw the power of nature on full and terrifying display late in 2010 and in the first two months of 2011. The University is mobilising its resources to aid students and communities affected. Shane Cahill reports.

There were major floods in the Creswick vicinity in September 2010 and January and February 2011. The Shire of Hepburn contacted the Head of Department of Forestry and Ecosystem Science, Gerd Bossinger, regarding opening up the University’s residence for families from Creswick and Clunes in need of emergency accommodation as a result of the floods. A number of families used these facilities during the floods in both years.

 “In all of these events our number one priority has been the welfare and safety of our students wherever they might be,” explains Professor Phil Batterham, the chair of a working group co-ordinating the University’s immediate response to the impact of the spate of natural disasters and the longer term contribution it can make through research and planning.

”We worked our databases and reached out to our students in the affected areas in Victoria and Queensland.”

Professor Batterham said that while the University had provided financial support to the Queensland and Christchurch appeals, its main focus would be in Victoria.

“Our direct intervention in the field is in Victoria in Loddon Shire,” Professor Batterham says.

“We are talking to authorities there about what we can do and it appears likely that in addition to direct assistance in the response to the floods, the University will be involved in community rebuilding and in working with schools and other educational institutions.

“We are currently developing a range of strategies in partnership with the student Union.”

Pat Miller from the Academic Enrichment Services Leadership, Involvement & Volunteer Experience Unit (LIVE) explains that the LIVE Unit is developing a University-wide assistance program for flood-affected parts of Victoria in partnership with Loddon Shire.

“In the very short term the aim is to raise awareness of the issue on campus and the main means will be presenting a lunchtime concert in North Court on Tuesday 29 March at 12.30 in partnership with the Student Union as a fundraiser for the program,” Mr Miller says.

“In the longer term through the partnership with Loddon Shire, we will be engaging student volunteer projects, like the Student Ambassador Leadership Program (SALP) on specific tasks in the shire to be developed in semester 1 and rolled out throughout semester 2.

“The University has a responsibility not just to its students who are affected, but as a community to engage its considerable expertise, talent and volunteer networks to assist communities in need.

“These are true University-wide projects that by addressing a need identified in the community, we roll out projects that are undertaken by students, mentored by academics and facilitated by professional staff.

“The project is a clear statement about the importance of targeted community engagement at the University and we will be using our skills and time to make things just a little bit easier for these devastated communities. The long-term roll out of community projects recognises that in many cases, it can be months or years before these communities fully recover. The University is here to help all the way.”

Also in the longer term, the University’s research expertise has been made available to the Victorian Government both for restoration of affected areas and planning for future incidents.

At the time of writing the latest problem was a huge swarm of crickets sweeping across northern Victoria in the wake of an earlier plague of locusts, joining spiders, grasshoppers and Ross River virus-inducing mosquitoes thriving in the record summer wet.

And more than two years on from the Black Saturday bushfires the University’s response continues.

“‘The Book Bank’ is an initiative in which students and staff at VCAM have been invited to donate their most cherished books, which are being held to give to the community of Marysville when their new library is built,“ says Leisa Campbell, Lecturer in Theatre Making at VCAM.

“Donors are also invited to include a piece on why the book is particularly cherished by them.”