Cyclone Tracy

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Cyclone Tracy devastated the Northern Territory city of Darwin, as can be seen from this National Archives of Australia aerial view of the city.
Courtesy - National Archives of Australia A6135, K29/1/75/16

Cyclone Tracy was a tropical cyclone that devastated Darwin, Australia, from December 24 to December 25, 1974. It was recorded by The Age as being a "disaster of the first magnitude...without parallel in Australia's history." It killed 65 people and destroyed over 70 percent of Darwin's buildings, leaving over 20,000 people homeless. Most of Darwin's population was evacuated to Adelaide, Whyalla, Alice Springs and Sydney, and many never returned to Darwin. The town was subsequently rebuilt with newer materials and techniques. Cyclone Tracy was at least a Category 4 storm, although there is evidence to suggest that it had reached Category 5 when it reached Darwin.


Prelude to the storm

Darwin had been severely battered by cyclones before, in January 1897 and again in March 1937. However, in the 20 years leading up to Cyclone Tracy, the city had undergone a period of rapid expansion. E.P. Milliken estimated that on the eve of the cyclone there were 43,500 people living in 12,000 dwellings in the Darwin area. Though building standards required that some attention be given to the possibility of cyclones, most buildings were not capable of withstanding the force of a cyclone's direct hit.

On the day of the cyclone, most residents of Darwin believed that the cyclone would not cause any damage to the city. Cyclone Selma had been predicted to hit Darwin earlier in the month but went north and dissipated. Cyclone Tracy therefore took most Darwin residents by surprise. Journalist Bill Bunbury interviewed the residents of Darwin some time later and recorded the experiences of the survivors of the cyclone in his book Cyclone Tracy, picking up the pieces. Resident Dawn Lawrie, a 1971 independent candidate for the electorate of Nightcliff, told him:

"We'd had a cyclone warning only 10 days before Tracy [that another cyclone] was coming, it was coming, and it never came. So when we started hearing about Tracy we were all a little blasé." (Bunbury, p. 20)

Another resident, Barbara James, said:

"And you started to almost think that it would never happen to Darwin even though had cyclone warnings on the radio all the time ... most of the people who had lived here for quite some time didn't really believe the warnings." (Bunbury, p. 21)

The storm

On 20 December, 1974, the U.S. Environmental Satellite ESSA-8 recorded a large cloud mass centered in the Arafura Sea about 370 km north-east of Darwin. This was tracked by the Darwin Weather Bureau's regional director Ray Wilkie and senior meteorologist Geoff Crane. On December 21 1974, ESSA-8 showed evidence of a newly formed circular centre near latitude 9 degrees south and longitude 132 degrees east. The meteorological duty officer at the time, Geoff Crane, issued an initial tropical cyclone alert describing the storm as a tropical low that could develop into a tropical cyclone.

Later in the evening, the Darwin meteorological office received an infrared satellite image from United States NOAA satellite NOAA-4 showing low pressure had developed further and spiralling clouds could be seen. [1] ( The storm was officially pronounced a tropical cyclone at around 10 PM on December 21, when it was around 700 km northeast of Darwin. Over the next few days it moved in a south-west direction, passing north of Darwin on December 22. A broadcast on ABC Radio that day stated that Cyclone Tracy posed no immediate threat to Darwin. However, early in the morning of December 24, Tracy rounded Cape Fourcroy (the western tip of Bathurst Island) and moved in a south-easterly direction, straight towards Darwin.

By late afternoon, the city was heavily overcast with low clouds and was experiencing strong rain. Wind gusts appeared and were starting to cause physical damage. Between 10 PM and midnight, the damage became serious, and the cyclone's effect became imminent to the residents. After midnight, the cyclone passed directly over Darwin, with its 'eye' centred on the airport and northern suburbs. The wind gauge at Darwin Airport officially recorded winds of 217 kilometres per hour (135 mph) before being blown away itself. Unofficial estimates suggested that the wind speed had reached 300 kilometres per hour (185 mph). The winds and torrential rain continued until dawn. By 6 AM, Tracy had killed 65 people—49 on land and 16 at sea—and Darwin had been substantially destroyed.

Due to the destruction of infrastructure, the distance between Darwin and the rest of the Australian population and the fact it was Christmas Day and most media outlets had only a skeleton crew rostered on at best, the news of the cyclone took some time to reach people. Most Australians were not aware of the cyclone until late in the afternoon.

The initial emergency response was from a leadership committee of high-level public servants and police which stated that, "Darwin had, for the time being, ceased to exist as a city". Gough Whitlam, then Australian Prime Minister, was touring Syracuse at the time but flew to Darwin on hearing of the disaster. The Government began a mass evacuation by road and air. All Defence Force personnel throughout Australia were recalled from holiday leave, and the entire Royal Australian Air Force fleet of transport planes were deployed to evacuate civilians from the city and to bring essential supplies.

Tracy was the most compact tropical cyclone on record, with gale-force winds extending only 48 km (30 miles) from the centre.

The health and essential services crisis

As soon as the worst of the storm had passed, Darwin faced an immediate health crisis. On Christmas Day, the Darwin Hospital treated 500 patients, with 112 having to be admitted, and both operating theatres being busy for almost 24 hours straight. Local teams had to work without relief until the arrival of two surgical teams from Canberra late that day. Those that were considered to be unable to return to work within two weeks were evacuated by air.

All official communications out of Darwin were wrecked. The antennas at the Australian Coastal Radio Service station VID were down. Station manager Bob Hooper, an Amateur Radio operator, was one of the Amateurs who established communications using his own equipment. Several operators provided message services to Perth, Melbourne, and Townsville. Soon afterward, VID operators went onboard the MV NYANDA in Darwin harbour and then for five days official communications traffic in and out of Darwin was handled there on CW.

Those that remained in Darwin faced a new threat: disease. Approximately 30,000 people were homeless and fitting into makeshift housing and emergency centres. The city was without water, electricity or sanitation. Volunteers came in from across the country to assist with the emergency effort. Trench latrines were dug, water supplies delivered by tankers, and mass immunisation programs begun. The army was given the task of cleaning out rotting contents from fridges and freezers across the city, which was completed within a week. The city itself was sprayed with malathion, in order to control mosquitoes and similar pests.

Attempts to reconnect essential services to the city began on Boxing Day. Officers from the Federal Department of Housing and Construction began clearing debris and working to restore power. They sealed off damaged water hydrants and activated pumps to reactivate the city's water and sewerage systems.

Evacuation and the public response

Major-General Alan Stretton, the Director of the National Disasters Organisation, and the Minister for the Northern Territory, Rex Patterson, arrived at Darwin Airport late on Christmas Day and quickly took charge of the relief effort. After an assessment of the situation and meetings with the Department of the Northern Territory and relevant minister, he concluded that Darwin's population needed to be reduced to a "safe level" of 10,500. Around 10,000 people left within the first two days, but the rate of departures then began to slow. The government then gave support to his position, offering full reimbursement of personal costs, as long as evacuation took place. Where necessary, people were flown out from Darwin, with their cars and important possessions following by rail. Due to communications difficulties at Darwin airport, however, The Age reported on December 28 that plane landings were limited to one every 90 minutes. At major airports, refugees were met by Salvation Army and Red Cross workers. The Red Cross also took responsibility for keeping track of the names and temporary addresses of refugees. A number of primary school-age children were evacuated ahead of parents to other Australian cities, such as Perth. Stretton also regulated access to the city by means of a permit system. Permits were only issued to those involved in the relief or reconstruction effort, and were used to prevent the early return of some of those evacuated. By December 31, only 10,638 people remained in Darwin.

Upon receiving news of the damage, community groups across the country began fundraising and relief efforts. Major reception centres were set up at Katherine, Tennant Creek, and Alice Springs. Several small towns along the Stuart Highway made efforts to assist people who were fleeing by road, supplying them with food, rest, mechanical aid, and fuel. At Adelaide River, the small local population provided a hot meal for every person who stopped there. Within twenty-four hours of the storm hitting Darwin, the population of Alice Springs had raised $105,000 to assist its victims. At the Boxing Day Test cricket match in Melbourne, both teams moved around the boundaries carrying buckets into which the crowd threw cash for the relief fund. Darwin families were given priority on public housing waiting lists. On December 31, 1974, Stretton recommended that full civilian control should resume in Darwin, and handed over control of the city.

Reconstruction and effects on Darwin

In February 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announced the creation of the Darwin Reconstruction Commission, which was given the task of rebuilding the city "within five years". The damage to the city was so severe that some advocated the resitting of the entire city. However, the government insisted that it be rebuilt in the same location. By May 1975, Darwin's population had recovered somewhat, with 30,000 residing in the city. Temporary housing, caravans, hotels and even ocean liners were used to house people, as reconstruction of permanent housing had still not begun by September that year.

However, by the following April, after receiving criticism for the slow speed of reconstruction, the Commission had built 3,000 new homes in the annihilated northern suburbs, on top of repairs to those that had survived the storm. New building codes were drawn up, trying to achieve the competing goals of a speedy reconstruction and ensuring that the damage of 1974 was not repeated. By 1978, the city had recovered to the point of being able to house as many people as it had before the cyclone. However, as many as 60% of Darwin's 1974 population were no longer living in the city in 1980. In the years that followed, Darwin was almost entirely rebuilt and now shows little resemblance to the Darwin of December 1974.

Until 1974, the Northern Territory had had minimal self-government, with a federal minister being responsible for the Territory from Canberra. However, the cyclone and subsequent response highlighted problems with this that led directly to the decision of Malcolm Fraser, Whitlam's successor as Prime Minister, to give self-government to the Territory in 1978.

Many of the government documents associated with Cyclone Tracy are due to become publicly available in early 2005, due to Australian Freedom of Information legislation allowing the declassification of confidential government documents after the passage of thirty years.

Cyclone Tracy in popular culture

Cyclone Tracy, due to its severity, has entered into Australian popular culture in a way that no other meteorological event had before, or has since. Probably the most famous work that it has inspired is the song by Bill Cate, "Santa Never Made it into Darwin" [2] ( Composed in 1974 to raise money for the relief and reconstruction effort, the song became so wide-known that in 1983 the Hoodoo Gurus released a song entitled "Tojo Never Made it to Darwin", inspired by Bill Cate's song and about the Japanese bombing of Darwin in World War II.

In 1986 the Nine Network and PBL created Cyclone Tracy, a period drama mini-series based on the events of the cyclone. It was written by Michael Fisher, Ted Roberts, and Leon Saunders, and had Chris Haywood and Tracy Mann playing the lead characters, Steve and Connie.


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