Compiled by Dr Susie Burke MAPS, Senior psychologist, Public Interest, Environment and Disaster Response, APS National Office, and other members of the Public Interest team

This summer, floods have devastated many regions of Australia, especially in Queensland and Victoria. As of the end of January, 35 people have died, with nine people still missing. In Queensland, at least 70 towns and over 200,000 people were affected, and three-quarters of the State was declared a disaster zone, still only at the start of the wet season. In Victoria, flooding affected 83 towns. For some, this is the second or even third time they've been flooded in recent months. As we write, many people are still waiting for the waters to arrive or recede, and a huge cyclone is threatening the Queensland coast.

At the Flood Disaster Recovery Briefing organised by the APS in Brisbane in late January, Professor Justin Kenardy FAPS from the University of Queensland made the distinction between two types of flood experiences: rapid flooding with high threat and high loss/disruption, and slow inundation with less threat and moderate to high loss/disruption. Both kinds can cause devastating and widespread losses of livelihood, property and possessions - and in some cases, people die.

The APS is most fortunate to have a host of experts in disasters among its members, and the APS Disaster Preparedness and Response Reference Group has been an integral part of mobilising the psychological response to the Eastern States flood emergency. With the assistance of members of this Group, this special InPsych report has been quickly pulled together to help members understand the impact of the devastating floods on people's psychosocial wellbeing and mental health, and the varied trajectory of recovery. The report highlights the types of help people are likely to need at different stages in the recovery process - and how psychologists can best respond.

Key to the APS response to the floods have been lessons learnt from previous disasters: ensure assistance is coordinated and integrated with the authorities in charge of the disaster response; build the capacity of local people and resources rather than bringing in outsiders; and promote the importance of relationships at all levels, from accessing social support for survivors through to building connections with the various stakeholders involved in long-term community recovery.

Worldwide, floods not only incur the majority of disaster deaths, but they account for 40 per cent of all disasters, and are seen as the most costly. The hardships for those affected can be profound; whole communities can go through a process of chaos, then banding together, and sometimes splitting apart as the strain starts to tell and the blame game begins after the immediate crisis has receded. Community recovery therefore involves social, economic and practical elements as well as psychological.

Natural disasters like floods, fires and cyclones are increasingly going to be part of our lives. The APS is working to support Australian communities to become better prepared, psychologically, for extreme weather emergencies, in order to enhance recovery. Together with the Red Cross, the APS is continuing to develop resources and training for preparing communities into the future. Our thoughts are with all members affected by the floods, and with their communities.

InPsych February 2011

InPsych Feb 2011 cover

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Vol 33 | Issue 1