WITH his flood-ravaged street covered in mud and his driveway inundated, Byron Heap felt his stomach drop when he thought of Noodles, the family pet mouse, whose cage would have been directly in the path of the waters outside.
As he went to check on the creature, he began to imagine how he would explain Noodles's demise to his young son.
A watermark on the outside of the cage showed the tide had risen at least 20 centimetres - too high, he thought.
But there was Noodles; still inside and - somehow - still alive; a tiny survivor.
"He must have been up there, clinging on," said Mr Heap, pointing to the heights of the cage.
"He's just a bit damp."
So too is much of Mr Heap's street - Benelong Street at Bulli - where floodwater surged in early on Tuesday while most of the residents slept.
The water hit about 1am, after nearby Wharton Creek broke its banks.
The powerful tide uprooted parts of the road, carrying basketball-sized pieces of bitumen downstream and dumping them in a nonsensical pile.
There was more than 15 centimetres of mud in the driveways of some of the worst-hit houses.
Wheelie bins were lifted and set down in strange places; garage doors bowed against the pressure of the tide and cars were inundated, to be towed to uncertainty.
By 10am, a mere trickle moved along the gutter, harmless now and glinting in sunshine. The day was humid, and starting to stink.
Most of the residents had stayed home to heave muck from their driveways, help their neighbours, meet insurance assessors and make trips to hire vacuums, pumps and drying machines.
Students of Bulli High School walked past the street towards the beach, slowing to inspect the damaged front yards.
There were no classes at the school yesterday; it was too badly damaged.
Tidal marks showed where the water had risen 70 centimetres up the walls in some buildings.
Teachers, aides and administration staff arrived in gumboots to inspect damage to about 12 rooms, including the senior study room, the toilets, special education room, the old hall and the industrial arts building, where the wooden parquetry flooring was caked in a slippery silt and the water had lapped against the sturdy timber work benches.
In the canteen, hundreds of dollars worth of drinks, books and food were compromised.
The canteen's Lyn Falkiner, of Helensburgh, arrived about 7.30am, tip-toeing over the silt-covered linoleum to inspect the mess.
"We got rain at home - but not like this," she said.
The carpet in the music rooms was some of the squelchiest at the school. The floodwaters inundated at least one guitar and lapped at speakers and the piano base.
In the quadrangle outside, the water had churned up a sticks, leaves, chip packets and long-lost balls from the playground.
Ryan Sikk, Wollongong SES unit controller, came to the school at 2.30am, when Ursula Road was "like a river".
"At that time it was very fast and it was very muddy," he said.
The SES were involved in 26 rescues and received 900 calls relating to the flooding.
Records show falls of 177mm in Balgownie, 174mm in Figtree, 200mm at Dombarton Loop and 184mm at Mount Kembla.
SES acting commander Jim Smith said the clean up of Bulli High would take several days.
"When you've got this amount of mud and debris, you're not quite sure what could be in it, so it's [closed] for health reasons," Mr Smith said.
Back on Benelong Street, Maree and Matthew Becker woke in near darkness and didn't at first realise the extent of the damage to their home. Mrs Becker came downstairs and noticed the floorboards were strangely slimey throughout the ground floor.
"When I saw it, it was glossy. I opened the blinds and then it was: 'Oh my God, what do we do?'."