Two years after silt and mud trashed them, Northern Rivers schools rise from ruin

“My first memories were just the silt and the mud,” says Dave Lees, summoning back his impressions from the day he returned to the Mullumbimby public school campus, the day after it was swallowed by flood waters.

“It was just a brown, smelly, clay-laden, dirty space. It looked like another planet,” the school principal says.

A beloved brood of chickens was at the top of his list to check on.

“I went over and saw the 12 chooks. They had unfortunately all perished,” Lees says. “My first job was to go and dispose of them.”

As he made his way around the “stinky” campus that day – almost two years ago – the extent of what the Northern Rivers had endured became clear.

“Then I went and attacked the canteen where all the freezers and fridges had fallen over into the flood water and food was already starting to rot,” Lee says.

“We lost absolutely every single item in the library and pretty much everything in our kindergarten classroom. All of our sports gear, our canteen, music room and admin block was trashed.”

The nearby Main Arm Upper public school was even worse. Buildings were off their foundations, walls were coated in mud and the initial recovery was even slower due to washed out roads.

The school P&C president, Bobby Henry, says the whole place was “effectively destroyed”.

“It was just ruins,” he says.

That was the start of a long recovery for the two communities.

Kids and teachers bounced around between other local campuses, demountables and alternative classrooms.

“There’s been an impact to their learning through this period – my daughter’s had to move her classroom three times this year,” Henry says.

“The teachers are doing a great job at working with the kids but the reality is the facilities just weren’t there to allow it.”

After more than 18 months of work including rebuilding, refencing and replanting, Henry says the school is looking even better than it did before.

He marvels at the resilience of the students. But there are scars: “Every time it rains, my daughter says: ‘Is it going to flood today, Daddy?’.”

“There’s still that little like sentiment in the back of her head that sits there and it’s always there and she’s constantly aware of it,” Henry says.

The two schools will celebrate fully reopening on Monday, nearly two full school years after the floods gutted them.

The education minister, Prue Car, says she is thrilled that the campus works have been completed.

“I am looking forward to seeing the school communities make the most of the new facilities,” she says.

Greens MP Tamara Smith paid tribute the people who “literally saved each other during the floods” and thanked everyone who helped getting the schools back open.

“For our kids at Mullum and Main Arm, they have had the trauma of the floods and landslides and the loss of their schools,” she says.

“It is their strength and fortitude that inspires me to keep showing up.”

The community recovery is far from over. In Mullumbimby, some people are still living with relatives, in caravans or camps of temporary “pod” homes.

But Lees hopes the school’s return to full function would be a boost.

“It’s had its challenges along the way but we’ve got there in the end,” he says.

“We’ve got new chickens who are providing us with lots of eggs every day … The school is better than it’s ever been.”