“It was very hard on the senses”: The reality of living through Australia’s biggest flood

Catastrophic weather events like the floods in Lismore and the Northern Rivers region are often simply images on our TV screens. But what is it really like to live through a natural disaster and its aftermath?

Red Cross Community Recovery Officer, James Wallace.

James Wallace and his young family lived through one of the worst bushfires in Australian history—the summer of 2019-2020—in the remote Victorian town of Mallacoota before relocating in 2021 to the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales.

Little did he know he was soon to experience a catastrophe of a very different kind. James was living in nearby Woodburn when the Lismore floods came through, and the small town essentially became an island, with many homes going underwater.

James now works as a Community Recovery Officer with the Red Cross, helping communities to rebuild from the unprecedented floods.

An initial deluge

When the floods first hit, the rapidly rising water cut James off from his house. He was forced to watch the disaster unfold on TV as helicopters beat through the skies above the town.

“It was quite eerie having helicopters fly overhead rescuing people off roofs. We were watching on TV, and we would see them fly over where we were. It was a very surreal experience,” says James.

During the initial onslaught of a natural disaster like the Lismore floods, when the floodwaters render familiar neighbourhoods virtually unrecognisable, the body switches to fight-or-flight mode. “There's a lot of adrenaline, and that fight-or-flight response lasts quite a while,” James says.

Then, as the floodwaters recede and the full damage is revealed, a new and grim reality sets in.

An assault on the senses

Floods leave a rank smell of mud and mould behind them, along with some devastating sights. The assault on one’s senses can have a huge impact on mental health, and the trauma can linger for a long time.

“It was very hard hitting on the senses, the smell and the sight,” James says. “It’s nearly unrecognisable. Everything’s just so out of place. There were farm animals lying across the road. I’ve got two young kids, so we didn’t take them down there. I didn't want them to see that.

“To see a town underwater is confronting, but then when the water recedes, to see nearly every single house with people’s belongings out the front, it’s very confronting to see people having to throw their lives out their window.

“And it smells. It’s just thick mud and it’s not safe.”

The threat of water-borne disease

Floodwaters are often contaminated by sewage, as well as household or industrial waste and animal carcasses, bringing the very real risk of water-borne disease and pathogens. The mud left behind harbours bacteria, and it’s not uncommon for people to get sick with gastrointestinal complaints like diarrhoea and vomiting, as well as skin infections, during the clean-up process. The risk of mosquito-borne disease also increases after a flood event.1

“You can get quite sick,” James says. “You have to be really careful.”

After weeks of clean-up, led largely by volunteers who handed out gumboots before pitching in to help their neighbours, a second flood hit the region and residents were forced to repeat the process.

“The effort of spontaneous volunteers really shone through,” James says. “It was just completely overwhelming. To have complete strangers in your house, respectfully helping to clear out the place and move everything and do all the hard work from tearing out kitchens and floors and bringing you food and drinks, and then setting up donations’ hubs … those volunteers have been there since day one, since the rescue efforts, and are still there working full-time hours.”

The mental health impact

Getting back to a sense of normality can be difficult if your home and life has been upended. Even for those whose homes were spared, it’s common to experience the same feeling that others around you are feeling. Entire communities can share the trauma of a catastrophic event.

“The mental health challenges within communities after a disaster, and the effect of what trauma can do to people, is very real,” James says.

“You don't have to have lost your house. You don't have to have been there. When you have close communities, vicarious trauma is a very real thing.”