Wollongong residents remember a devastating flood 20 years ago, when 316 millimetres of rain fell in 24 hours.
One person died — swept away in a creek — as raging torrents overran homes, and left the city isolated.
The one night of relentless rain saw nine times the average rainfall for August fall in less than six hours, stranding thousands of people in their cars as mudslides and floodwaters closed access to roads and rail.
Clarrie Bouma was living in Thirroul when the floods came through.
"The water level came up through the floorboards. It happens so quickly you don't have anytime to do anything," Mr Bouma said.
He recalls moving his belongings in his studio to higher ground, just moments before it was too late.
"I started putting a couple of things on the table because it was just so intense, the rain," he said.
"All of a sudden under the back fence, this tide of muddy water just came in and I'm looking at it trying to lift stuff up on to chairs and tables, because I had all sorts of things down here."
Gary Yates was part of the rescue effort, working for the Corrimal Fire Brigade, and said the University of Wollongong was almost lost.
"We got a call-out the university was going underwater — all the alarms were going off," Mr Yates said.
"We were out working all night, I remember, coming home at 7:30 the next morning. Wollongong was chaotic."
Mr Yates said congested roads also hindered rescue efforts.
"A huge problem with emergency services was trying to get from one place to another because roads were cut,' he said.
"It took us more than an hour to get from the university to Bulli [10km away]."
Mt Saint Thomas resident Rita Foster provided refuge for those stranded when rail links were cut.
"I found some steel workers at Scarborough and took them to my place to stay the night — so the next day they could go to work," Ms Foster said.
With the floods damaging more than 1,000 properties, the clean-up was monumental with household goods strewn in streets and debris left from the tide of destruction.
Further south, Nowra and Kiama were also hit by later rains.
A community rallies together
Wollongong's Lord Mayor at the time, David Campbell, said he felt sick at the memory of seeing reports of residents caught in the storm, handing children through windows of flooded buildings, and losing all of their possessions.
He said the strength of residents helped the town to pull itself back together.
"The stoic way that people who had lost everything just said 'But someone's probably worse off than me' — that response was just so totally inspiring," he said.
"The community really pulled together and, in many ways, that sense of cohesion made leadership that much more possible and meant [council] could re-double its efforts."
The clean-up drew state and federal politicians including then prime minister John Howard, deputy prime minister Tim Fischer, governor-general William Dean and premier Bob Carr to inspect the devastation.
"There were donations to the immediate relief appeal, and Bob Carr as the premier declared a disaster zone and that meant there was money available for public infrastructure to be reconstructed, which had to be jointly funded by the council," Mr Campbell said.
The former mayor said he argued passionately to get flood mitigation funding from the state government to make it easier for council to acquire [flood prone] properties."
Wollongong not prepared
The flood exposed Wollongong's unpreparedness and many were unhappy with the way the crisis was handled.
"Unfortunately the drainage lines were blocked up with weeds and rubbish — that was the reason so many houses flooded, because the water couldn't get away," Mr Bouma said.
"If you can keep those [drainage] channels clear you'll solve a lot of problems."
He feared Wollongong today was not as prepared as it could be.
"The Wollongong Council has spent a hell of a lot of money on information and not a lot on mitigation," Mr Bouma said.
How safe is the city now?
Wollongong's Lord Mayor, Gordon Bradbery, recalled residents' "pain, grief and trauma" during the floods.
He said council had been trying to address these events by spending $40 million on capital works, acquiring land, and conducting flood studies over the past 20 years.
"$40 million for flood mitigation and flood infrastructure and we are going to continue," Mayor Bradbery said.
That included debris control structures, detention basins, culvert augmentation, and voluntary acquisition schemes.
Wellington Drive at Balgownie has had a new drainage structure built to cope with large volumes of water and debris, while Brokers Road detention basin reduced flooding downstream by releasing water over a longer period.
Significant works have also been undertaken at Anama Street and Fairy Lagoon at Mount Keira.
"We have concentrated on areas of high risk and made the city more resilient to flooding," Mayor Bradbery said.
"Safety is a high priority to council."
But he said around one third of the city was prone to flooding and there was a chance it could happen again, so being prepared was important.
"This beautiful part of the world — having the escarpment where it is and the ocean — means it's a sandwich that's very vulnerable to inundation and rain events."ABC