Natural disaster

In Aotearoa New Zealand we experience many kinds of disaster - earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, storms, and floods. All disasters have the potential to cause disruption, damage to property, and cause injuries and fatalities.

Trauma is a normal response to the stress and shock of a sudden, unexpected natural disaster. Everyone will have different reactions, and these are normal responses to an extreme situation. The strength of reactions can be challenging to manage. It is common to experience them strongly in the early days and in the weeks and months that follow. After extreme disasters, many people will experience reactions to their trauma and loss for even longer periods of time.

Many people find that daily life and work can’t continue as usual. There are lots of changes to adapt to. You might need to recover from physical injuries and learn to live with ongoing disabilities or health complications needing continuing treatment. If you’ve been bereaved by the event as well, you will also be grieving for your personal loss. There could be financial pressures and many practical matters needing attention.

Gradually, one step at a time, your recovery will move forward. It can be a time when families, whānau, friends, neighbours, businesses, and the community pull together to get through as best they possibly can.

If life or property is at risk, immediately call 111 for emergency help
If phone lines are down or overloaded, look for help from neighbours and your local community.

Listen to your radio or television for advice on what to do
Visit the Civil Defence website for updates. 

Follow the directions of police or any other emergency service who request certain actions, such as evacuation.

Use any disaster relief that is available
People who accept support from others and remain connected to their family, whānau, friends, and local community are in a better position to get through and rebuild their lives. Civil Defence helps people get through natural or man-made disasters, like storms or floods, landslides, earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, or volcanic eruptions. The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management coordinates Civil Defence nationally. Local Civil Defence is led by your city or district council. Check the Civil Defence website or your local council website for information about support available for you and your family, whānau, and friends.

Find ways to increase confidence in your future personal safety and security

  • Get prepared. Organise emergency supplies, an emergency plan for your household, and pack some bags that you can ‘grab and go’, if needed.Go to the Civil Defence website for suggestions about how to do this.

  • Use the tips police suggest in their booklet Keep Safe, Feel Safe. Taking these actions can help to increase your confidence in your personal safety and security, and that of your family and whānau. NZ police Keep Safe, Feel Safe booklet

Give yourself time to recover
Physical, practical, financial, and emotional recovery will need a one-day-at-a-time approach at the start. See below for ways to cope with the impact of what’s happened.

If the disaster is a flood
See our information on flooding here.

Everyone’s different and will react in their own ways
Emotionally, common reactions include shock, numbness, fear, ongoing anxiety, being easily startled, on alert for more threats, grief and sadness, anger, resentment, guilt (even when you had no control over the traumatic event), helplessness, powerlessness, and possibly depression. Some people can feel very disconnected for a time, not caring about anything or anyone. Others can become so focused on getting through that emotional reactions can be delayed. It can be a very unpredictable time and it’s common for people to feel very overwhelmed for a while.

You might have difficulty concentrating and be more forgetful. You may find it hard to think clearly and have difficulty making decisions. You may want to be with others more, or to be alone more. You may find you have disturbing images or memories that keep coming into your mind, or have ongoing nightmares or flashbacks (reliving what happened). You may also develop some other mental health challenges, such as acute anxiety, panic attacks, or depression. You could be more irritable than usual. You may try to avoid certain places or things that trigger difficult memories.  

Physically you might have difficulty sleeping and have appetite changes. Your body might be very tense, with things like headaches and body aches. You may have stomach and digestion problems, nausea, and exhaustion. Existing health conditions may worsen, and you may find it very hard to make any meaning or sense of what’s happened, especially if people have been injured or died in the disaster.

If children or young people have been affected by what’s happened
See our information sheet for parents and caregivers about Supporting your child or young person after a crime or traumatic event.

If the disaster is a flood
See our information on flooding here.

The kinds of reactions listed above are all normal reactions to a terrible event, but they often can affect people more than most expect. Recovery from a traumatic event like this, that cause fear and significant loss, will naturally take some time.

Looking after yourself is important
Eat healthy food. Drink enough water. Keep up routines and get good rest and sleep, as best you can. Do some simple exercise. Take some slow, deep breaths. Spend time with people you can relax with, or with a pet. Spend time in nature. If you find keeping busy helps, find useful tasks to do. See a doctor if you’re unwell, extremely anxious, or are having difficulty sleeping. Draw on any cultural or spiritual beliefs you may have. Accept caring offers from others if that would help.

A flashback feels as though you’re back in the middle of your traumatic experience or reliving some aspect of it. This can be in vivid detail and during a flashback it can be difficult and confusing to connect back to the present and to what is real. To better understand flashbacks and ways to manage them, see our information sheet Dealing with Flashbacks.

Talk about what happened
When you’re ready, talk to someone you trust about what happened, such as a trusted family or whānau member, a close friend, your doctor, a counsellor, a psychologist, a respected elder, rangatira, or a Victim Support Worker.

If any aspects of your story are particularly disturbing, speak to a professional about these things. Talking honestly about how things are can help release the stress and emotional tension inside.

More tips for coping with your reactions
To understand more about trauma and grief, and to learn ways to manage your reactions, please see:

Your reactions are normal responses to a traumatic event
Even though it may not feel like it now, they will gradually lessen in the weeks and months to come. If they don’t lessen or get worse and disrupt your daily life and work, it is best to seek the help of a professional who has experience supporting people after trauma.

Some people may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you have concerns, see your doctor, a counsellor, a psychologist, or ask a Victim Support Worker about help that is available to you.

If your reactions trouble you

  • Visit your doctor. They can do a health check and support you with any ongoing issues, such as sleeplessness, anxiety, flashbacks, or depression.

  • Consider talking with a counsellor or psychologist. They can help you work through your reactions and the consequences the crime has had.

  • If you need to find a local doctor, counsellor, or psychologist, please click here.

If children or young people have been affected by what’s happened
See our information sheet for parents and caregivers about Supporting your child or young person after a crime or traumatic event.

We are here for you 24/7
Our Support Workers are available to support you personally, or as a family or whānau, for as long as you need us. You can call us 24/7 on 0800 842 846 to be connected with a Support Worker.

Our support is completely free and confidential, and available throughout Aotearoa New Zealand.  In times of disaster, our team of Support Workers will be on the ground providing support in the most affected communities.

What we can offer
Our Support Workers can support you with:

  • someone to listen, talk with, and support you to cope through trauma and loss
  • help to understand your rights and make informed choices
  • information and help to answer your questions
  • help to access local support services or counselling to suit your situation
  • practical support and assistance to deal with things like funeral and coronial processes
  • someone to assist and support you if you are dealing with investigations or other government agencies.

We are committed to providing quality support to strengthen the mana and well-being of all those affected by a natural disaster.

If you have English as a second language
If you require support in your first language, Victim Support can use Ezispeak to connect with an interpreter over the phone. Call us on 0800 842 846 and let us know. We will try to match you to a Support Worker who speaks your language.

Other useful information and websites


Coping with Trauma
Dealing with flashbacks
If you have discovered or witnessed a crime or traumatic incident