McGregor Summer School and Toowoomba’s Inland Tsunami

For the past 18 years, I’ve been Tutor in Flute at the McGregor Summer School, held every January at the University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba.  For several years, I was also the Part-time Lecturer in Flute at the USQ, making weekly trips to Toowoomba during the academic year. In other words, I know the town reasonably well! Over the last few weeks, we’ve experienced unprecedented rainfall across South-East Queensland, and I don’t remember a January when the rain was so heavy and unrelenting.  Before I left for Toowoomba on January 4th, I’d already received a few messages from friends overseas who were worried that I may have been caught up in the Queensland floods.  I was able to reassure them at that time that my home was several hours drive away from most of the flooded areas.  That said, I had either performed in, given flute lessons and/or workshops, or examined for the Australian Music Examinations Board in many of the flooded towns such as Dalby, Chinchilla, St. George, Gympie, Bundaberg, Maryborough, and Rockhampton.  It was quite upsetting seeing photos of streets I knew I had walked along, yet didn’t recognise at all when covered in flood waters!  These are some photos I took of the Fitzroy River in Rockhampton just a few weeks before the floods there.

The Criterion Hotel Motel on the Fitzroy River

Here is a video showing Rocky during the floods, but before the Fitzroy river peaked.

Many of the McGregor  Summer School students, including some of the flute class, were from flooded towns, including Rockhampton.  As so many roads and airports were cut off, I didn’t know how many students would be able to attend.  As it turned out, the whole flute class made it to Toowoomba, even one young girl from Rockhampton, whose family had left the town before the highways were cut.  None of us believed that Toowoomba could flood badly, because of its high position, despite the incessant, heavy rain we were experiencing in Queensland.  The locals said that flash floods were a possibility, but that the water would simply run down the range if one occurred. Yet, the rain kept hammering down, like I’d never seen in Toowoomba.  After a few days of intensive performing and teaching commitments, we had a day off on Sunday 9th, and against the advice of one of the locals, I travelled back home after our last teaching session on Saturday 8th January.  Her words were something along the lines of, ‘there’s no way in hell I’d be driving down the range today’.  I knew that the range did tend to be closed during inclement weather.  In the weeks leading up to the Summer School, I was Artistic Director for another event, the Logan Summer Music Workshops, and prior to that, had a very busy few weeks of work.  So, I felt in need of time away from teaching, and just wanted to be home for a couple of days between summer school commitments.   The person who gave me the advice is a generally more cautious person than I, so I figured I’d just do the drive, and things were totally fine to be honest.

It was an entirely different story, however, early on Monday morning, 10th January, when I drove back to Toowoomba.  The rain was pelting down like never before, and the trip was spent dodging the biggest potholes I’d ever seen.  Fortunately I had some warning of this in advance, as one of my former McGregor students mentioned on his Facebook status update that the road back to Brisbane from Toowoomba was a mess of potholes.  There were even “waterfalls” along the highway that weren’t there before! It was a slow drive, and I ended up arriving in Toowoomba around 9:00am, not long before the Toowoomba range was closed to the public.  It’s just as well I made it when I did, as the roads were then cut off for days because of the events which would take place just a few hours later, that have since been beamed around the world.

I was supposed to teach a flute lesson for one of the McGregor Summer School flute students at 9:00am, but had to send a text message to say that I’d been held up on the roads. Having postponed the lesson until the following day, considering the condition of the roads I’d just driven on, I had a feeling that I should use the remaining time I had before the next lesson at 9:30am to fill the car with fuel.  Not normally something I would do immediately on arrival in Toowoomba, but there was something spooky and very different about the drive I had just done, on roads I know extremely well, in all sorts of weather conditions.  Mentioning fuel in a flute-related blog is not something I would normally be bothered with, but as you will see later in the story, filling the car at this point turned out to be a good move!  I arrived at the university (USQ) in plenty of time to teach two other flute students, then the day continued as per usual with an orchestra rehearsal, and a student lunch-time concert.  At the end of the concert, all of the staff and tutors met in the Arts Theatre for a group photograph, and were meant to attend tutorials directly afterwards.  This didn’t happen according to plan!  The rain was pelting down now to such an extent that students and staff began flocking to the windows of the building to see the vast amounts of water entering the A-Block courtyard.  The rain was actually pretty noisy!

In fact, the rain was so heavy that waterfalls were forming in the corners of the courtyard.

If that weren’t bizarre enough, the Arts Block started to flood.  Of course when things get really exciting, you realise that your digital camera is back in your room at the McGregor College, and the only pictures you can take are with your mobile phone!

The printmaking studio next door was flooding too, with McGregor Summer School art students rushing madly to save their work!

It was about this point that things became fairly quiet,  and I realized that the students must have returned to their classes.  Or maybe not.  On the walk back down the corridor to my tutorial room, I heard young male voices saying, “hey Karen, come and have a look at this”.  What now?  I looked down the stairs to the backstage area, which was full of water.  My jaw dropped so much that the boys laughed very loudly (and something one of them would remind me of later in the summer school)!

Then I saw a group of tutors looking out to the carpark, only to find my car was about to swim!  This was all happening so quickly!

On the advice of one of my dear colleagues who thought it was worth taking the risk, I ran to reverse the car out of the carpark.

Yes, this really was happening in Toowoomba, a city on top of a range, on high ground.  Even the locals had said to me that while the rest of Queensland was already flooding, Toowoomba wouldn’t flood, because the water would run straight down the range.  They said it could flash flood, however, and boy, did it!  The other music tutors decided to make a run for it as well, and do what they could with their cars.

Where were the students?  Things had gone quiet all of a sudden.   I found most of the them in the Arts Theatre, with pianos shifted to the front of the stage, and all looking at the water about to flood the theatre.  Some students held brooms and were trying to push the water back, to keep it away from several pianos in the theatre.  Several students and staff ran to get brooms and buckets and worked as a team to try to keep the water away.

At about this point, I thought I had better make myself useful, so as some of the staff were lifting one the pianos, I placed a brick and a sandbag under the piano, to help place it onto a slightly higher level.  The water level was getting higher, so I put the phone down near the seats in the theatre, and joined the students and staff at the back of the theatre to help bucket the water and throw it into rubbish bins.  I was wearing a maxi dress and it was soaking wet already from moving the car out of the pool that was the carpark! We did as much as could be done, and by the time I went back to the upstairs corridor, it looked like this:

Chamber music classes went ahead in the afternoon, but the students were eventually told to evacuate the building.  The tutors’ concert that evening was cancelled because the safety of the building couldn’t be guaranteed.

We heard that the East Creek had flooded, but didn’t know the devastation that was going on in the city, as we were dealing with our own little drama!  After most of the students left to go home, I took some shots of the Arts Theatre, brooms, buckets and all.  The instruments including the pianos and percussion instruments were safe, up higher in the theatre.

I drove my car back to McGregor College and the only way back to the room was walking through a small pool of Toowoomba red dirt-stained water.  Joy.

Pathway from Carpark to E Block at McGregor College

Only way back to my room

Not long after this, I headed over to the dining hall.   Ankle deep red water!

Outside the Dining Hall, McGregor College

It wasn’t until dinner time, after some of my colleagues had seen the news, that I had the first opportunity to hear about all the devastation that had been going on in the centre of Toowooomba, about 5.6 klm away.  They said, “Did you see the news?  Unbelievable devastation!”  I hadn’t had the opportunity to watch a TV at that point, as I had to change out of the wet dress!  None of us could imagine it, because Toowoomba is such a quiet town in many ways (at least for us city kids!)  I drove past the creek shown in the video only a few hours before this event took place, which has now been viewed by several million people around the world.

Calls to my phone started coming in before I had seen this footage, from family and close friends who were all concerned about my safety.  All I could really tell them about was our little drama up at the USQ, but it was nice to know that people cared about me!  I never really got to see the footage of the ‘inland tsunami’ until the above video was posted by a Toowoomba local on Facebook.  We were all told at dinner time that the police were advising everyone to stay indoors that evening, and not drive anywhere.  There was something very eerie about the feeling in the air, and nothing like I had ever experienced in my hundreds of visits to the Toowoomba.  I wasn’t quite sure what I would wake up to in the morning, but it ended up being a pool of water, right outside the door to my college room.   This photo was taken around 5:00am on the morning of Tuesday 11 January.

Around 5:00am the morning after the flash flood

By breakfast time (7:00am), the water had drained, and we carried on with the day, as per the usual McGregor Summer School schedule.  Sandbags started to appear around the university, especially at the back of the Arts Theatre.

Sandbagging behind the arts theatre

Word got around Toowoomba that due to the range and roads being cut on all sides, supply trucks couldn’t bring essential supplies, including fuel and food.  I joined the panic buyers in the late afternoon to get a few basic things, in case we couldn’t get home, and found a lot of empty shelves at a major local supermarket.  Unlike many of my colleagues, I had lived through Cyclone Tracy in ’74, and recalled vividly what it was like to have to eat tomato flavoured chips for several meals in a row, because that, and canned soup, were just about all that our evacuation centre had!   As you can imagine, tomato chips were not on my shopping list on this occasion, as I have a life-long memory of tomato chips being associated with natural disasters!

Pretty much all basic items in supermarkets were snapped up, such as bread, toilet paper, tissues, fresh fruit and vegetables, sugar, flour, bottled water and so on.   Petrol stations ran rapidly out of unleaded petrol in the days following the terrible flash flood.  Some stations shut down altogether.

Petrol Station in Toowoomba CBD

I took a drive into town a couple of days after the flood, and the central business district looked surprisingly normal, apart from the area around the Coffee Club, which took the major impact of the floods.  Here is a video which shows the Coffee Club and surrounding businesses just after the floodwaters first hit.

This is the Coffee Club, just two days after pictures of it were beamed around the globe.

Toowoomba Coffee Club

Margaret Street Toowoomba, looking down to the Coffee Club

There were a few road closures, but the city looked almost as I knew it.  There was something very, very strange about walking along streets where people had lost their lives in a freak of nature, just a couple of days before.  I also felt very sorry for the local business owners who opened for business, but had very few customers.

Cafe on Margaret Street, a few doors up from the Coffee Club

Back at McGregor Summer School, things carried on as per usual, well, almost!  I mean, apart from the potholes, the costumes hanging out to dry in the carpark, the waterlogged carpet being ripped up, and the red mud outside the USQ refectory.


None of us knew exactly when and how we were going to be able to come home.  Not only had the Lockyer Valley (at the bottom of the Toowoomba range) experienced utter devastation and the loss of many lives, but then Brisbane was hit by disastrous floods on Wednesday 12th January.

Highways were cut off everywhere, and there was serious damage to the roads.  The University of Southern Queensland kindly offered to accommodate all of the McGregor Summer School staff for as long as necessary, and they were even looking at the possibility of chartering flights on small planes, so everyone could get back to their homes in Brisbane, interstate and overseas.

Despite all this, by the day of our big Empire Theatre performance, on Friday 14th January, it became possible to travel to Toowoomba via Cunningham’s Gap in 4 hours (rather than the usual 1.5 to 2 hours via the Warrego Highway).  While many roads were still cut, and many parents did miss the concert as a result, some people did make the very long commute from Brisbane.  Now that’s what I call enthusiasm!

Final rehearsal for the concert at the Empire

On the final day of Summer School, Saturday 15th January, we had a reduced audience in the Arts Theatre at USQ, as parents were still trying to travel to Toowoomba after road cuts, but it was a fantastic concert.  The students were praised for their maturity and teamwork during our little flood crisis at USQ.   The same courtyard which flooded a few days earlier was filled with art work for the final day’s art exhibition.  Am sure it will remain a most memorable summer school for all of us.

Rehearsal for the Closing Concert at USQ

Arts Block Courtyard on the Final Day for the Arts Exhibition

The Warrego Highway opened up that afternoon, but many of the tutors decided to drive back in a convoy the following morning.  I just wanted to get home, so packed my bags quickly, and though a slightly slow driver drive than usual, made it home by early evening.

There were some very sad sites along the way, such as mattresses along the side of the road, smashed fences, debris, and uprooted trees.  There were helicopters flying overhead at times, and army trucks full of soldiers driving past.  I didn’t want to take photos of badly damaged areas, as it seemed inappropriate, especially where re-construction efforts were underway.  However, here are some of the sights I saw along the way.

Near Withcott town centre, one of the worst hit areas in the Lockyer Valley.


A pie shop in Plainlands

Roadworks on the Warrego Highway

My home is within the Logan City Council area, about 3 minutes drive from the Brisbane border, and is situated at least a 20 minute drive from the Brisbane River. Therefore, my suburb was (thankfully) not in a flood risk area.  That said, the Queensland Conservatorium where I am on the sessional teaching staff, and also doing a doctorate, was flooded in the carpark/basement area.  The Queensland Performing Arts Centre, where I have performed many times, including at its opening concert in 1985 was damaged more significantly and remains unopen to the public.  Hopefully performances will be able to re-commence very soon.

Since arriving home, I’ve been able to catch up with news reports both on TV and online.  One of the intriguing stories was of a “mystery woman” who was swept up in the Toowoomba floods, after climbing with her mother onto to the top of their car.  I looked at the photo several times because I know quite a number of people in Toowoomba, but didn’t recognise the young lady.  The girl was subsequently found safe and well, but her name was not reported at that time.

Herald Sun article

Somehow her identity was revealed to the press, and it was a big shock indeed to discover that the “mystery woman” in the photo, was actually one of my former students, Hannah Reardon-Smith!  (I wrote about her in my blog in October, after she won the state flute competition!)  I had only had breakfast with Hannah last month, just prior to the annual general meeting of the Queensland Flute Guild.  Her story was reported in the major newspapers across the country.

Sydney Morning Herald article

Daily Telegraph article

The Australian article

While Hannah declined to be interviewed, I’ve been in contact with her and can say she is happy and well in every way, which is wonderful news.

Today, Sunday 23rd January, is a bright, sunny day in this part of the world, and despite several of my colleagues having experienced extensive flood damage to their properties, I’m grateful that everyone I know is safe and well.  I have only been back in town for a week, so am yet to hear everyone’s stories.  My story is a lucky one compared to many, many others, but a snapshot of my weeks during the Queensland Floods, one of the worst natural disasters in the history of Australia.

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