Opinion: Auckland floods – the recovery is just starting, in every sense

Tuesday 7 February 2023

Senior Clinical Psychologist Associate Professor Kirsty Ross offers advice on how we can check in and offer support to our friends, whānau and colleagues in flood-stricken Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.

Dr Kirsty Ross.

Last updated: Monday 6 March 2023

By Dr Kirsty Ross

In Aotearoa New Zealand, water is often associated with fun and outdoor activities such as swimming, fishing, water-based leisure activities – be it in the sea, rivers or lakes. It is also associated with positive things such as cleansing, hydration and something that is refreshing on hot days. What we have seen over the past few weeks in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland is the other side of water. Fast moving, unstoppable, destructive and leaving behind so much heartache and a massive clean-up for those people and communities affected. The water in floods isn’t nice and clear and clean; it is full of dirt, debris, sometimes sewerage and basically anything the body of water collects in its path. Contaminating and condemning whatever it has flooded and meaning people have lost precious possessions and their houses.

And for some people, they have also lost a sense of security and a sense of optimism that 2023 was going to be the start of better times after the impact of COVID-19. People were already recovering from that crisis and carrying a level of residual fatigue before the floods created such a devastating impact.

What has also been left is a sense of both awe at the power of water and Mother Nature, as well as fear about the uncontrollable character of natural disasters. And fear of more such events in the future, along with the immediate anxiety of having to find a new car, house, clothes, bedding, toys for the kids and all the things that make somewhere feel like home. People are having to be separated from their beloved animals as they are being placed in emergency accommodation.

Understandably, people are watching the skies and weather forecasts with apprehension and a sense of vigilance to try to ward off any possible future threat. Rain is now associated with negative experiences and anxiety. Let us not forget that four people tragically lost their lives to the water and those families are in mourning for their loved ones.

There are certainly lessons to be learned, it would seem, from how these events can be managed and how people can be given as much time as possible to prevent as much damage as possible. But no one can stop a storm.

So psychologically, a natural disaster holds no one to blame, no sense of responsibility for what caused it to happen. The other side to that is a sense of not being able to control or prevent these events, which can create a sense of helplessness. Increasingly, the changing climate of our world means we are seeing global weather events that are unheard of and that we have not had to deal with before.

It is crucial we do not have a sense of hopelessness in the midst of the challenge of the clean-up after these floods. What is helpful is to focus on what is within your control. For example, keeping updated with weather forecasts (but not being overly obsessed with them), making sure that your insurance is updated, knowing how to make sandbags, where to source materials you might need to secure your house if needed, having precious documents, photos and items being secured in waterproof bags on shelves high in your house, and a place where you can go if you need to leave your house quickly, with some bags packed with clothes, medication and essential items.

Let us also focus on the heroes and the good we see when events like this happen. What we have already seen are communities banding together, helping one another, dealing with this as a group. That is psychologically so beneficial - no one really understands what the floods were like more than those who went through it. Feeling part of a collective with those who ‘get it’ leaves people feeling less isolated and alone. However, people are still being affected differently and have suffered different degrees of loss. So even within these communities, getting outside support can be helpful so that those who are struggling are able to get support and offload to those who are ‘fresh’ to the situation and not managing their own distress and challenges. A balance between support within and outside these communities can be helpful.

Parents - remember that you need to care for yourselves in order to be able to provide calm, reassuring support that your young people need. They are more likely to be ok if you are ok. Focus on trying to eat well, sleep as well as you can, get outside and move your body, stay connected to people you care about and try to reinstate some routines and structure, while being flexible to roll with changed circumstances. It is certainly understandable to feel angry, sad, worried and a sense of this not being fair - all incredibly valid emotions to be feeling. You don’t have to sit with these feelings on your own. I encourage anyone who is struggling to reach out and let someone know if they need support, or make use of helplines available for advice or just a listening ear.

We know from previous disasters in Aotearoa New Zealand that those who have been affected sometimes feel forgotten as time goes on, even as the repair and restoration after these events takes a long time. There is already talk of how long the clean-up will take in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and it is likely to be over months, if not years. As people affected are continuing to manage their daily lives, national support can drop off as another story takes centre stage on the news. So, it is important as a nation that we remember that this disaster has not stopped just because the storm moved away. People are living in difficult situations, facing long roads of financial, physical and emotional recovery, all while watching the skies nervously when it is looking like heavy rain may fall.

What we need to do is continue to reach out, check in and offer support to our fellow Kiwis in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland as they rebuild after a difficult start to what we all hoped (and continue to hope) would be a better year.

National helplines

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP).

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat.

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO).

Healthline – 0800 611 116

Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202 (to talk to a trained counsellor about how you are feeling or to ask any questions).

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat.

thelowdown.co.nz – or email team@thelowdown.co.nz or free text 5626.

What's Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available every day of the week, 365 days of the year, 11am–11pm. Online chat is available from 11am–10:30pm, seven days a week, including all public holidays.

Alcohol and Drug Helpline – 0800 787 797 or online chat.

Are You OK – 0800 456 450 family violence helpline.

Gambling Helpline – 0800 654 655

Anxiety NZ – 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY).

Seniorline – 0800 725 463 A free information service for older people.

Dr Kirsty Ross is a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology, at Massey University’s School of Psychology.

Related news

Opinion: Time to reconnect – slow and steady does it

Thursday 29 September 2022

Dr Kirsty Ross reminds us to take the time to reconnect with the things that are important to us this Mental Health Awareness Week.

Opinion: “Are you ok?"

Monday 27 September 2021

Wellbeing is something that is worthy of putting effort and time into each day, but events like Mental Health Awareness Week remind us of the importance of taking stock and asking ourselves and others "Are you ok?"

Breathe neon sign

What’s best in a world full of parenting advice?

Wednesday 10 July 2019

Parenting can seem like a minefield with such an abundance of advice - much of it contradictory. Psychologist Dr Kirsty Ross hopes to reduce the stress many parents feel by sharing her top tips based on 20 years of experience working with youth.

What’s best in a world full of parenting advice? - image1