Academic journal article Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Disaster Education in Australian Schools

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Disaster Education in Australian Schools

Article excerpt

Disasters are commonly thought of as events that cause significant loss of life, damage and hardship across communities, although actual definitions of disasters vary (Quarantelli, 1998). Australia is characterised by frequent natural disasters of varying type, including flood, cyclone, drought and fire, which have been broadly increasing in frequency since reliable records began (Council of Australian Governments, 2004). In Australia and elsewhere, the frequency and intensity of natural disasters is thought to be affected by climate change. For example, a 2007 Working Group of the IPCC predicted with high confidence that there would be an increase in intensity and frequency of heatwaves and fires as well as floods, landslides, droughts and storm surges in Australia and New Zealand in the 21st century (Hennessy et al., 2007), a prediction confirmed more recently by the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO, 2011).

While disasters may cause significant hardship, damage and loss of life, the impact of a disaster depends not only on the type of disaster itself but also on the exposure and vulnerability of the individuals and communities involved (Fothergill & Peek, 2004). Research has indicated that children are among the most vulnerable to natural disasters (Wisner, Blaikie, Cannon, & Davis, 2004). For example, upon conducting a review of 160 studies of disaster victims worldwide, Norris, Friedman, Watson, Byrne, and Kaniasty (2002) concluded that children experience the adverse effects of disasters much more than adults and the elderly. The ongoing impact of disasters in Australia is evident in the Kinglake Ranges in Victoria. More than 4 years after their experience of the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires, 'The Smouldering Stump Campaign' was established for the ongoing needs of children. The campaign launch brochure states 'Children and young people continue to struggle with maintaining "normal routines", and parents are exhausted and overwhelmed with the issues that face their children' (Smouldering Stump, 2013). The reasons for this are not clear. However, research has indicated that children tend to rank hazardous events, including natural disasters, as one of their major fears, even prior to a disaster occurring (e.g., Campbell & Gilmore, 2006; Ollendick, King, & Frary, 1989). Some children have even experienced problems following relatively slight hazardous events, such as those where life is not disrupted in a significant manner and there is no loss of life (Ronan, 1997a, 1997b; Ronan & Johnston, 1999). Consequently, researchers have postulated that children's vulnerability to hazardous events occurs in part because it is the realisation of one of their worst fears.

Despite their fears around disasters, children can be empowered to prepare for and respond to disasters via various means, including through school-based disaster education programs (Back, Cameron, & Tanner, 2009; Ronan, Crellin, & Johnston, 2012). As a result, children can become more resilient to disasters. Resilience has been variously defined depending on the level of analysis, which may be the individual, community or ecological system. Most definitions incorporate a stressor and the notion of adaptation, and a speedy return to pre-stressor levels of functioning (Norris, Stevens, Pfefferbaum, Wyche, & Pfefferbaum, 2008). Bonanno (2004) defines individual resilience as a person's capacity to maintain overall healthy, stable functioning following stressful life events. From the perspective of communities, Norris et al. (2008) refer to the ability of communities to withstand hazards and/or recover from disasters.

Attention to the needs of children and youth before, during and after a disaster is imperative, whether considering emergency management or broader sustainability perspectives. A thorough, recent review of Australian emergency management plans (Davie, 2013) showed that emergency management planners assume that parents, primary caregivers and the education system will take care of the needs of children in emergencies and disasters in Australia. …

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