View Full Version : Cyclone Tracy destroyed Darwin 40 years ago today

25 Dec 14,, 09:44
Today marks an important anniversary for Australia & an odd personal anniversary for me. It is the 40th anniversary of the near total destruction of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy. it is also the 40th anniversary of the oldest memory I can specifically place to a particular date. I can recall being with my family on that Christmas Day in 1974 & hearing that a cyclone had destroyed Darwin. It was shocking then & it is still shocking.

I know we have a native Territorian amongst us. He might be able to favour us with his perspective...and correct all my errors. :)

Darwin is & was a very distant place. It is over 3000kms from Canberra & over 2500kms from the nearest city (Adelaide). In fact, Jakarta in Indonesia is only 2700kms away. For Americans, it is about 3000kms from Washington DC to Albuquerque. For Indians, it is a bit under 2500kms from Colombo to New Delhi. The difference here is that there is next to nothing in between Darwin & those places. Even the nearest towns were a long way away. it was and is an isolated place.

In 1974 few Australians had ever been to Darwin and most of us only knew of it as a dot on the top of the weather map. Part of the vast & underpopulated Northern Territory. It only had 43,000 people, and still had an air of the sleepy colonial outpost about it. The mayor of Darwin was an Indian-born Englishman called 'Tiger' Brennan, who got about in a pith hat that seemed to belong to the C19th Raj rather than a modern democracy. In fact, at the start of 1974 the Northern Territory had only just obtained self government. Rebuilding after the Cyclone was the first thing its infant legislature ever did. Darwin was also Australia's most ethnically diverse city, hosting a large Aboriginal population & a significant East & Southeast Asian community.

The Northern Territory has always been prone to cyclones. Darwin has frequently been threatened, but most big ones seemed to miss. So, when a Category 5 cyclone was reported to be heading toward Darwin on Christmas eve 1974, most residents were relatively relaxed. A few Aboriginal residents spotted the odd behaviour of animals and saw the warning signs, but only a few. It wasn't until late evening that it became clear that Darwin was going to be hit. The light stilted houses that were commonplace in Darwin were ill-designed to cope with such winds. Many were recent & hastily constructed. By morning most of them were gone.

Remarkably only 71 people died, though many believe that figure to be an underestimate.

There was no water, little food & not enough shelter. many people had to abandon what was left of their houses & move to hastily set up evacuation centres. Local chinese restaurants donated equipment from their wrecked stores to help cook the food. Others business owners invited people to take what food they could. This would later cause problems when a hastily assembled police force from outside Darwin took such people for looters - a situation complicated by the presence of actual looters. Having slept through the cyclone courtesy of some strong medication, 'Tiger' Brennan took off with several guns to begin shooting stray dogs. Sadly, many beloved family pets were dispatched in the weeks following the storm. In one awful story a dog that saved the lives of its owners unwittingly followed their car to an evacuation centre, where it was shot before they could do anything.

So comprehensive was the destruction that news took time to filter out to a shocked nation. Many communications facilities were knocked out. Worse, it was a public holiday, so many of those who would normally swing into action were not at work. Parliament was in recess and the PM was overseas. The Army was immediately sent in. Half the Royal Australian Navy was sent to Darwin. Major-General Stretton arrived late on Christmas Day to take command of the city. His role was and is controversial. Some resented the way he took command, others were grateful that the rest of the nation had responded.

What followed was the largest airlift in Australian history. The RAAF, civilian airlines & even USAF aircraft were sent to Darwin to evacuate tens of thousands of people who simply could not be taken care of on the spot. Many families left. Others left behind a husband while the wife & kids evacuated. Some people entrusted their children to virtual strangers. Others were unsure of the fate of family for weeks. Some simply never returned.

The rebuilding began, and in time Darwin was reconstructed. Bigger and better than ever. This was the end of the 'old' Darwin and the birth of a new one. Brennan stepped down as Mayor in favour of a female doctor (perhaps the first female Mayor of a capitol city in Australia) and the new legislature set itself the task of creating a new city. Darwin now is a busy, modern city of somewhere over 130,000 people brought closer to the rest of Australia by cheap air travel and modern communications.

The footage here is remarkable. Hang on until the end for a devastating shot of the devastation from the air.