Amanda: The mental drain of living through a flood

Amanda Singleton opinion piece

Published in The New Zealand Herald.

Just a few years ago, every morning, I would gaze out of my window and sigh at the sight of a bright blue, cloudless sky. Auckland was gripped by a relentless drought, and we craved rain like never before.

But now, to be honest, I find myself yearning for those sunny days. Our dams are brimming with water, which is fantastic, but the African in me misses the sun’s warm embrace.

My personal preferences aside, I am very conscious that the recent Auckland floods had a profound emotional impact on many of our city’s people. It was a quick corridor conversation with one of our staff members that truly brought this home for me.

He shared a touching story of a grateful customer whose home was red-stickered after the January storm. Our team had reached out, informing her that we paused her fixed charges and added a $50 credit to her account to help with the cost of the clean-up. The customer was sobbing with gratitude, appreciating that someone cared enough to help without her having to ask. Although seemingly small, this gesture meant the world to her amidst the myriad of challenges she faced.

Many other subsequent customer stories made it clear that the impact of living through a flood lingers long after the waters recede. The aftermath of these extreme events leaves scars that deeply affect the mental health of those directly impacted. Studies from the UK revealed alarming statistics: one in five flood survivors experienced anxiety, and one in three dealt with PTSD. Numbness, disconnection, and sleep disturbances were commonly reported, with the depth of water and lack of warnings being significant stressors. Displacement, disrupted services, and limited post-flood support added to the burden.

While our agencies recognised the mental toll of the Anniversary Weekend Storm and Cyclone Gabrielle fairly early-on, providing selfcare tips and offering counselling, we must now turn our minds to how we can be better at this.

Of course, we must better prepare ourselves for future major floods as they just happen to be the most frequent and costly type of national disaster to hit us here in Aotearoa. And, let’s be clear, with the changing climate, we can expect to see even more of them. So, would it be asking too much to invest in more measures to mitigate the emotional impact?

To start with, I strongly advocate for increased investment in early warning systems, as research has shown that the mental impact of floods diminishes when people have adequate time to prepare. It's better to have a false alarm than no alarm at all when lives and wellbeing are at stake.

Empowering people with information is also vital to reducing both physical and mental impacts. Those living in flood plains should be aware of the risks and be equipped to take precautions for their safety and that of their loved ones. That’s why I really like Auckland Council's recently launched interactive flood hazard map. By simply typing in their address, people can instantly see if their property lies in a flood-prone area and access advice on storm preparation and enhancing property resilience.

We also need to help people understand that emotional distress is a real thing during floods. We know many Kiwis find it challenging to ask for help, so checking in with friends, family, or neighbours who have been affected by flooding can make a world of difference. Some may feel the full emotional impact only months later, as they grapple with insurance claims and the overwhelming life admin post-flood. The support required may be very different for different people. Afterall, we aren’t all wired the same, right? So best we use this time to engage with people and communities directly impacted by floods to understand what support would be most helpful next time around.

As a nation, we must contemplate how we can better protect ourselves from future floods. Let's act at both individual and national levels to prioritise mental health and embrace proactive measures to safeguard our communities. With more floods inevitable, it's time to unite and ensure we're prepared for whatever lies ahead.