Thematic Analysis of Needs in the Northern Rivers Post-2022 Disaster: A Tapestry of Resilience and Vulnerability 

Lisa MachinEnvironment & Conservation, Health & Wellbeing, News

The Northern Rivers climate disaster of 2022, when flooding inundated our villages, towns, and countryside at unprecedented levels, has left a lasting impact, with communities still deep in the process of recovery two years on.  

The grassroots response to the disaster, from crisis through to recovery phase, has been widely documented and praised – many of us know a hero from our Tinnie Army, or helped out with our own time, hands, knowledge or resources. It exemplifies the power of community-led action when traditional emergency systems and top-down approaches buckle under the scale of disasters. 

Research from both the NRCF’s flood report and external sources such as Oxfam, Red Cross and the National Institute of Health shows disasters often result in a ‘funding cliff’ 12 to 18 months later. As initial disaster response funding ends, despite recovery efforts being ongoing, this results in a drop in services and mental health. Since the 2022 floods, the NRCF has been a vocal advocate, highlighting and addressing this issue, most recently in collaboration with the Reconstruction Authority. In late 2023, NRCF delivered the $1 million Community Resilience Grant Program, committing to providing funding certainty for successful applicants before the end of the year. 

This thematic analysis draws upon the diverse range of funding applications received from across the region. While it doesn’t claim to provide an absolute picture of challenges and needs, it delves into the challenges and needs identified by grassroots community organisations. It provides critical insights into the needs of a community still in recovery and reveals a complex picture of resilience and vulnerability woven with threads of trauma, displacement, and ongoing struggles.  

The Shadow of Trauma and Mental Health: The floods’ psychological impact emerges as a dominant theme, with rising rates of mental health issues, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts underscoring ongoing trauma. Multiple organisations, including Mullumbimby and District Neighbourhood Centre (MDNC) and Agape Outreach, emphasise the escalating mental health crisis. The slow recovery process is compounded by ongoing stressors, housing issues, financial stress, and trauma. Disturbingly, in some communities, only 18% of clients accessing flood recovery services have permanent housing, undermining efforts to support rebuilding the foundations for healthy individual and community well-being. Local research by organisations including Healthy North Coast , as well as NRCF’s own research documents the increased demand for crisis support, case management, and holistic well-being activities, particularly for vulnerable groups like First Nations youth and those with complex needs. The recent Tweed Byron Police suicide statistics underscore the gravity of mental health challenges, ranking the region highest in both the state and region. 

Homelessness and Housing Insecurity: Recovery Support Service data reveals housing issues as a significant contributor to mental health challenges. With 4,000 homes deemed uninhabitable and thousands more damaged by the record floods, the impact on housing in an area already suffering from a housing crisis is significant. The imminent cessation of some local flood-specific mental health supports will further exacerbate the crisis. Many individuals face eviction and rising rents, contributing to homelessness and food insecurity. The dire need for housing solutions is underscored by the escalating numbers of individuals left without homes and basic necessities.  

The grant application data shows that many local residents report that ongoing uncertainty about their likelihood of support (including support to relocate from flood destroyed homes or make homes safer) means they struggle to make the major decisions required about their family’s future. 

Exacerbated Vulnerability of Marginalised Groups: Research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2022) indicates that disadvantaged people tend to be disproportionately impacted by climate and other disasters. The increased vulnerability of certain groups is evident throughout our analysis. Applications report that First Nations communities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and young people have been disproportionately affected by the aftermath of the floods:  


Youth Mental Health: One of the most pressing issues identified in the post-2022 disaster landscape is the mental health struggle among young people. NSW Health statistics highlight alarming rates of mental illness among 15-18-year-olds, affecting approximately 20% of young people across the region. Already impacted by three years of COVID, flood-affected young people are grappling with life satisfaction issues, anxiety, disengagement from learning, bullying, and increased substance use. Youth surveys indicate that flexible, face-to-face, youth-friendly mental health support is what young people want in their communities. The Advocate for Children and Youth Protection (ACYP) echoes this sentiment, emphasising the necessity of tailored interventions for First Nations, non-binary, and risk-taking youth with complex needs. Youth-specific events, prioritised by North Coast Community College and other organisations, offer a crucial avenue for young individuals to come together, share experiences, and access engaging activities. These simple acts of reconnecting and engaging young people to support their well-being are strongly supported by evidence from bodies such as the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 

Returning Indigenous Corporation - Community Resilience Grant RecipientIndigenous Community Wellbeing: According to The Returning Indigenous Corporation at least 3,500 First Nations people living on Bundjalung Country were severely impacted by the 2022 disaster, and analysis highlights ongoing struggles, emphasising the need for tailored initiatives. The impact of the disaster on community connection is evident, restricting Aboriginal communities from coming together and hindering positive moments that enhance social and emotional well-being. Organisations like Mudyala Aboriginal Corporation and Nimbin Neighbourhood Centre recognise the importance of continuing to foster community connection for both recovery and preparedness for future events. Limited access to specialised mental health care for vulnerable cohorts, including First Nations youth, is shown to be an ongoing gap in the service system. Ensuring that culturally appropriate services are available is critical for well-being. 

Local Impact Grant - Queer Family Northern RiversLGBTIQ+ Support and Recovery: Our analysis highlighted the unique needs of the LGBTIQ+ community, emphasising the necessity for safe, culturally appropriate, and affirming support. The scarcity of such services in the region and the lack of specialist skills in mainstream services highlight the challenges faced by this community. In particular, the loss of housing and the need for members of the LGBTIQ+ community to take up inappropriate and unsafe living environments are issues that Queer Family emphasises. The organisation’s plea for appropriate funding is imperative for both organisational flood recovery and providing recovery services to the more vulnerable LGBTIQ+ community.

Community-Led Disaster Preparedness: Many community resilience organisations like Burringbar Community Association and Resilient Uki emphasise the need for a continued, proactive, community-led response to future disasters. The identified priorities, including communication networks, documented plans of action and community education, underscore the necessity to be prepared rather than reactive. Ongoing benefits of this more organised response and approach have been two-fold, building community generated and owned readiness for disaster, and with the process itself bringing the community together and strengthening the social fabric that proved invaluable during the flooding crisis. The unpredictability of future events and the need for a robust strategy to ensure community resilience further highlight the importance of this approach.

Financial Hardship and Advocacy: Financial stress emerges as a critical concern across the region, as highlighted by the Pottsville Beach Neighbourhood Centre (PBNC). The centre recorded a 150% increase in presentations of people seeking financial assistance and material aid post-2022 floods. Lismore and District Financial Counselling Service outlines the severe financial hardship exacerbated by the loss of employment and personal assets due to floods, compounded by sporadic insurance payouts, rising interest rates, and rising living costs. The need for skilled professional advocates to help impacted families navigate complex financial issues post-flood is evident. There is a clear need for holistic and comprehensive financial support services. 

Ongoing Need for Recovery and Resilience Services: The grassroots and broader community sector continues to face persistent challenges in the post-disaster scenario. The demand for essential community resources, emotional support, and community engagement remains high, exacerbated by the compounding impacts of floods and economic struggles. The strain on community-based services has been clear, with some important community services having to close in 2023. Social isolation emerges as a pervasive issue, impacting community well-being and hindering the rebuilding of social connections. Many communities report a decline in general social participation and engagement since the floods, which continues today. Spaces that serve as meeting points for individuals and families seeking goods, counselling and a sense of community were viewed as essential. These services reflect a key aspect of community resilience – the ability to come together and support one another. 

Threads of hope:  

Despite the stark picture painted by the stories and statistics, a thread of hope persists. The tireless efforts of community organisations, the resilience of individuals, and the unwavering solidarity evident in many narratives illustrate the potential for healing and positive change. 

The thematic analysis of needs in the Northern Rivers post-2022 disaster reveals a complex landscape of intertwined challenges. Addressing these needs requires a multi-faceted approach that tackles housing insecurity, fosters social connection, prioritises mental health, empowers marginalised groups and builds long-term resilience.  

Grassroots and community organisations understand and support the unique needs of their communities and stakeholders in a more nuanced way than top-down systems ever can. Listening to and amplifying those local voices is essential to a strong recovery. By understanding the tapestry of resilience and vulnerability woven by these assets and needs, we can chart a course toward a future where the Northern Rivers not only recovers but emerges stronger, more equitable, and better prepared for the uncertainties to come. 


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