During the Black Summer bush fires, I drove through the small town of Mogo on the South Coast again and again as I traveled from blaze to blaze. Each time, I slowed to a crawl. The destroyed buildings at the northern end of the town’s main drag broke my heart: It was all just ash, debris and one lonely brick chimney.
This week, I returned for a family holiday nearby and was stunned. The chimney was gone, replaced by a new cottage. The streets were filled, the shops busy. Not even a bad Covid outbreak seemed to have kept people away.
The return to normal, of course, has been far from universal. Only a small portion of the homes on the South Coast of New South Wales that burned in the 2019-20 fires have been rebuilt. Many of the properties I visited or drove past back then have been cleared of both burned trees and people — caravans and emptiness still dot the landscape. They are the kinds of scars that locals recognize and visitors might miss after the fires that scorched 46 million acres.
Still, there was no denying the liveliness — the joy and the sense of a community — coming back.
There were so many moments during our visit when the mixing of locals and visitors in a place that had been devastated seemed to encourage kindness and courtesy. At a busy pub in Moruya, a couple finishing their meal made room for us at their table after a group of men in high-visibility work shirts warned us we’d wandered into the smoking section. At the grocery store, people stepped aside to let people pass or waited patiently for their turn. All were masked. None complained.
At the Mogo Wildlife Park, where the animals had been evacuated by brave employees defying an approaching inferno, an older gentleman at the entrance offered a bright welcome and reminded us to use the “dine and discover” vouchers supplied by the state to help tourism get back on its feet in the midst of the pandemic.
At that point and later on (while admiring a bushy red panda), I started to think about what it takes to come back from disaster, whether it’s tied to the climate, a virus or anything else. The plaintive pleas for help from local officials and businesses two years ago — the request for city folk to support devastated rural communities — seemed to have at least helped keep solidarity front of mind. I remember being skeptical when I first heard the messaging: Come visit the South Coast; make your vacation plans with more than just your own pleasure in mind!
That seemed to be the gist. There were vouchers and discounts then, too, I think, all of which I doubted would have any impact. Cynics would argue that even now, all of that did very little.
But even if it was just something that sat in the back of people’s minds like mine, perhaps it’s valuable. I don’t recall anyone asking people to visit and spend money in places damaged by disasters when I covered hurricanes in Florida and earthquakes in Haiti or Mexico. There were no incentives to visit when the dust cleared; no broad coordinated appeal for more than just a donation of money.
Most important, the response in Australia emphasized the value of physically bringing together the people affected to those who were fortunate enough to be somewhere else.
It’s that human connection that matters. That’s the social glue that bolsters national cohesion and that confirms what some psychologists describe as the benefits of collective trauma — it can bring out the best of human nature. When called upon to put in a little extra effort, many people respond. As I saw in Mogo and all over the South Coast this week, a little bit of empathetic momentum can go a long way toward helping people and places heal.
If and when the Covid crisis recedes, it’s a lesson worth remembering.
Now here are our stories of the week.