In the weeks after Black Saturday, public-spirited Australians dug deep to donate thousands of tonnes of household items to the victims of our worst ever natural disaster.
Clothes, toys and hundreds of bicycles poured in from across the country, demonstrating that rampant individualism could be temporarily overcome if the circumstances were grave enough.
Private companies and charities were also keen to help. Trucking giant Linfox and property developer the Goodman Group generously donated storage space across Melbourne’s suburbs, among a raft of very visible corporate benevolence.
But have the truckloads of goodwill produced a logistical nightmare?
Informed sources have told Crikey of a lingering pallet pile-up problem, that without immediate state government intervention, threatens to cast a pall over the impressive efforts to date. The unprecedented public response has meant temporary warehouses are bursting at the seams with whitegoods, bedding and TVs, more than three months after Black Saturday.
The warning signs have been visible for months. Just days after the tragedy, leading charities like St Vincent de Paul begun to call on people stump up cash, rather than goods. On February 18, St Vinnies said that its donations could “fill the MCG”. At about the same time, a Geelong warehouse reported a similar conundrum. A full month after the firestorm, eyewitnesses described semi-trailer after semi-trailer of unsorted bags and boxes still arriving from as far afield as Darwin and Wollongong.
Now, some of those initial offers of goodwill are wavering, with charities and corporates under mounting pressure to move pallets off-site. Last week, the Salvos issued another shout out for help, saying its massive 10,000 square metre warehouse had to be urgently cleared after its initial donated space expired.
Linfox, housing pallets on the same Clayton site as the Salvos, told Crikey the temporary lease on its donated warehouse expired on 10 April. A spokesman for the company confirmed 2000 pallets were still at the site, despite multiple loads being farmed out to shipping containers in bushfire-affected areas.
The most sensible solution, according to the charities, would be to consolidate the donations at a so-called “supersite” in metropolitan Melbourne with a subsidiary network of distribution points closer to devastated townships. Many of the goods currently held in warehouses won’t be needed until houses are rebuilt, with initial demand from victims said to have dwindled. But the state government appears reluctant to act.
A source told Crikey that an initial funding request by the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority to provide a centralised storage solution was rejected with the authority forced to return cap in hand for more funds. That plan has now apparently been approved with a spokesperson confirming that a “longer term logistics solution has been developed and is now being rolled out.”
However, specific questions over the location of the supersite and the opening date could not be answered — too late for some charities facing expired lease arrangements. Questions over funding negotiations with the Department of Human Services were also ignored.
A VBRRA spokesperson told Crikey that victims will continue to have access to donated goods during the transition period. But with fresh space needed now, it would appear necessary for reconstruction chief Christine Nixon to fast track the plan before the government’s willing partners are forced further offside.