Australians affected by bush fires still in tents as virus slows healing

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Cobargo (Australia) (AFP)

Victims of catastrophic bushfires in Australia are still living in tents, garages and makeshift shelters months after the fires have ended, efforts to rebuild their lives hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Inside a small tin on the southeast coast of Australia, a family of six takes refuge from the cold as the winter in the southern hemisphere begins to bite.

The structure – filled with toys and beds – has housed Anita Lawrence, 51, and five of her children since February.

She was in Tasmania when fires ravaged the area, burning materials ready to build a new house and a new life for her family.

“Every little thing has disappeared,” she told AFP near trees still blackened by the flames.

The unprecedented bush fire crisis in Australia, which has burned an area larger than most nations and displaced thousands, has highlighted climate change in a rich and developed country.

The disaster has triggered charity telethons, the government promises rapid recovery and donations from around the world.

But six months later and just six hours’ drive from hyper-affluent Sydney, dozens of people like Lawrence are still living in limbo.

“When you come back and there is so much destruction, everything is difficult,” she said.

Before the crisis, Lawrence managed to teach local children a few days a week at the local school.

During the multi-month lockout, she survived on pension savings and struggled to educate her own children using a single computer connected to a cellphone hotspot.

Now the schools are coming home and help has arrived, in the form of a local man, David Crooke and his crew who have set up an extension for their accommodation.

It’s temporary, but Lawrence now has a bathroom, heating, and a bedroom until she finds a way to build a permanent home.

“Just to see a young boy see running water itself, and shower for the first time, is a big thing,” said Crooke.

His small team – partially funded by the New South Wales government, the Australian Red Cross and donations – are building shelters for those who would otherwise be destitute for months.

“There are places that are completely wiped out – our next job we go, the ladies have a little tent in a shipping container right now,” said Crooke.

He himself lost his house to fires last year and spent the summer fighting the flames.

Armed with four homemade water pumps, his team saved several homes when fires repeatedly struck the south coast of New South Wales.

Since then, he has camped in increasingly difficult conditions – moving from property to property and helping to build shelters.

But with aging equipment and difficulty finding materials, the physical and emotional toll “whipped” the team, he said.

“No member of my crew really has anything, you know, we are guys week by week, you count on that paycheck very often. “

– The world has evolved –

Across the region, signs of life are springing from the charred landscape, but Wayne Keft, 66, said the recovery has been “slow and difficult” for many.

Her house near Cobargo was destroyed when “a ball of fire crossed the front of the house”.

He now lives in a garage and is plagued by dust blowing on a nearby road.

A surveyor’s stake to work on his new house is in a nearby barrel, useless until the ruins of the old structure are cleaned by crews who have been working on similar work in the area for months.

Aid has slowed since global attention shifted from the bushfires to the pandemic.

Mathew Hatcher said his warehouse in nearby Batemans Bay was once full of donations.

“We were driving, a very well-oiled machine, and then COVID struck, and it sort of stopped the donations,” said Hatcher, coordinator of the South Coast Donation Logistics team.

The virus has also forced many larger organizations to withdraw volunteers, leaving residents traumatized without adequate mental health support, he said.

With tourism effectively banned in the state until June 1 at least, the region’s main source of income and stimulus have also been cut.

Without wages, it is almost impossible for local businesses to obtain a loan to finance reconstruction.

“This region is going to have long-term financial difficulties,” said Hatcher.

After the fires, Lorena Granados and her husband set up an ad hoc market stall in front of the ashes of their store, “Roman Leather Goods and Repairs”.

They have since moved to a temporary building, hoping the company can help them get back on their feet.

“We really weren’t ready to lose our house and our belongings in one day,” she said.

The virus has slowed their business, but they are determined to continue.

“It encourages us to keep going every day when we sell a single small item,” she said.

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