While still mourning the devastating loss – of lives, livelihoods and property – caused by the horrendous flooding that so devastated large swathes of Queensland last month, Australians have shown their generosity and compassion, uniting behind flood-devastated communities in what is expected to be a lengthy cleanup process.
The eye care industry is no different, with leaders in the profession quick to promise whatever aid is required to colleagues caught in disaster zones.
It was a grim faced Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, who at the height of last month’s flood crisis, perhaps best summed up the mood of the nation: “It might be breaking our hearts at the moment, but it will not break our will.”
She was right. The annihilation of lives and communities by raging waters did break our hearts. She was right, also, about the will of the Australian people remaining unbroken. It was evident in the many stories of courage, heroism and survival that emerged in the wake of the torrent and is evident, still, in the fierce determination of communities across Australia to rebuild what was swept away.
This latest La Niña is strong, and the Bureau of Meteorology expects it – and the flood threat – to persist well into March.
While Queensland bears the brunt of the disaster, with 75 per cent of the State declared a disaster zone, the floods have impacted Victoria and other States of Australia.
In some ways, the heavy rains that caused the flash flooding and swollen rivers, did not come as a surprise. Meteorologists started predicting a wet summer when the early stages of La Niña appeared in mid-2010.
La Niña and El Niño are strong drivers of weather along the east coast of Australia. They are complex phenomena involving an interplay of sea surface temperatures, air pressure and wind. Put simply, however, in this “land of … drought and flooding rains”, it is El Niño that is responsible for the dry, while La Niña brings the big wet.
The El Niño of 1997-98 was one of the strongest on record, while the more recent series of smaller El Niños of the past decade is blamed for the drought conditions experienced in much of Australia over that time.
La Niña, on the other hand, brings wetter than normal conditions, and cyclones. This latest La Niña is strong, and the Bureau of Meteorology expects it – and the flood threat – to persist well into March.
With a damage bill in the billions and counting, what of the eye care industry?
The Optometrists Association Australia (OAA) has promised it will stand by its members, offering whatever assistance is required in the recovery process.
Speaking to mivision in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami-like flash flooding that engulfed the Queensland city of Toowoomba on 10 January, Mr. Greg Johnson, the CEO of the OAA’s Queensland and Northern Territory division, said in times of natural disaster, the obvious and immediate concern was for human safety.
“We have 950 optometrists in the state (of Queensland). They’re all on email and while I don’t know them all personally, I am in contact with them all – it’s a very intimate arrangement actually.
“We have the ability to do an (email) broadcast if people need things, they can email me and we can find someone to help. You wouldn’t find a more generous profession.”
Optometrists Association Australia (OAA) National President Michael Knipe vowed the industry would stand by its own, promising whatever assistance it could in the recovery process.
“As has been the case in past situations where communities have suffered natural disasters of this magnitude, the OAA and its members are standing by to offer assistance. Such measures include the loan of equipment or premises to allow optometrists in the affected areas to continue to offer quality optometric services to those requiring it.
“Many people in these communities will return to homes and offices to find they have lost their glasses and urgently need replacements and the OAA, as it has in the past, will ensure that replacement glasses are readily available to be donated to those in need.”
To some, eye care may not rate as a priority in a disaster of such magnitude because people see their eye health as a discretionary spend, but Luxottica Communications Director Ms. Cait Tynan said that, for many people, one of the first steps to getting things back to normal, is regaining the ability to see clearly.
Luxottica’s charitable eye care operation, OneSight, has experience in providing emergency eye care assistance in times of crisis and partnered with the Salvation Army to provide aid in the aftermath of the floods.
Ms. Tynan, said the immediate priority in the wake of a natural disaster was always to “make sure all of our people and their families are safe” and that staff members were “not trying to get to work if it was unsafe”.
“We have operations teams who work with people who are already on the ground and offer whatever help we can at the appropriate time,” Ms. Tynan said.
She said different emergency situations presented different challenges for operation teams.
“For example, with bushfires, they sweep through and generally we can provide help immediately. We can help screen and test people who may have problems caused by smoke in their eyes.
“With floods, it is less about eye damage and more about the loss of glasses, of contact lenses and of medications. From a customer perspective, glasses are likely to be lost or broken. If people can’t see, they can’t do things properly. One of the first steps to getting things back to normal, is making sure they can see.”
Ms. Tynan said one of the major problems presented by floods was the isolation they caused, making it hard to reach people in need.
“It’s not like the fires. It’s much more difficult to get it (help) to them straight away, so we hover and work with relief workers to see when it is appropriate to go in.”
Facing the Future
While the OAA was quick to promise to meet the immediate needs of its members caught in the floods, it also expressed concern about the longer term impact on the industry.
A major concern is the economic impact of the floods over the next few months.
Queensland and Northern Territory division CEO, Greg Johnson, said there was no doubt the profession would be facing tough times, and that many optometrists would be feeling the “pain”.
“People in that region are definitely doing it tough already. Five years ago severe water restrictions were imposed in Toowoomba. We couldn’t use any water outside. Bathing and drinking – that was basically it.
“That’s the regime we were living under for five years. We’re the ‘Carnival of Flowers’ capital and we couldn’t water our gardens! We all had to invest a lot of money in water tanks.
“People in agricultural industries were obviously the most impacted. They’ve done it tough with no water, and now it is the complete other way.
“The concern of optometrists is if there are no crops, then people have no income. If there’s no income, then they forgo their regular eye exams; new glasses; new sunglasses. That’s the common theme.
“They’re all expecting patient numbers and sales to be down.”
Mr. Johnson’s concern about the economic impact of the floods is shared by others in the eye care industry.
Toowoomba Optometrist Shannon Smith, the immediate past president of the OAA Qld/NT, managed to re-open her practice the day after the Toowoomba flash flooding, but says it was far from business as usual.
“It’s been devastating. You can’t imagine a town on top of a hill can flood like that. There was no warning. It just hit so quickly, people were trapped.”
Mrs. Smith said she expected a downturn in business over the coming months.
“I think people will be directing their money to other places. Glasses – they’re not luxury items – but people will definitely be thinking that their old glasses will get them through,” she said.
Eyecare Plus founder and Chairman Mr. Tony Hanks said he anticipated less demand for optometry services in their Queensland practices, as the industry is always dependent on the local economy which is in turn dependent on the local crops.
“Without income, people forgo their regular eye care rituals – eye exams, eye health tests, new glasses and new sunglasses. Lower demand for optometry services will result in a downturn in business, however, the true extent of this remains to be seen for some time to come.
“We’re used to cycles, the ups and downs, the droughts and floods. I believe we will get through this. It will be hard, but we’ll get through this,” he said.
Suppliers to the eye care professions have come to the aid of those whose livelihoods and practices have affected by the floods by offering equipment and product.
ProVision CEO Cam Battaglia, said “suppliers are lending a hand to help members with insurance claims, etc. as required to assist any affected practices to get back on their feet as soon as possible”.
Mr. Ian Melrose, Managing Director, Optical Superstore, who has stores in the flooded areas of Brisbane City, Ipswich, Toowoomba, Mt. Ommaney, Kenmore and Strathpine, said “the impact of this disaster is beyond belief.
“In reality, it’s probably going to be a dual step, three year recovery plan – in the short term, to physically try to sweep up the enormous mess and secondly, to somehow recover from long term financial devastation.
“A lot of businesses who were already in survival mode are now going to be so much worse off. With electricity shortages, some stores under water, staff in isolated areas unable to get to work and stores being closed indefinitely. The rent still needs to be paid on these premises’ although they’re unable to trade. Sadly, some of these businesses just won’t recover from this tragedy.
“We missed out on the GFC, but Queensland has its own GFC right now,” said Mr. Melrose.
The OAA has urged people to donate to the Premier’s Disaster Relief Fund.
To donate to the Premier’s Disaster Relief Appeal go to: http://www.qld.gov.au/floods or call (AUS) 1800 219 028.
To donate to the Salvation Army Flood Relief effort go to: www.salvos.org.au