I was watching television that evening with my mother when suddenly messages began flashing up. Members of the RAAF were told to report for duty as soon as possible. We thought World War Three had finally begun.
In the northern city of Darwin, the residents had responded to the latest cyclone alert with boredom, perhaps even irritation. They’d had several alerts in the preceding weeks but the cyclones had all turned away.
Tracy didn’t turn away. She came down on Darwin like the apocalypse.
Front page of the Melbourne Sun, Boxing Day. Pretty much anything above ground level was smashed to a pulp by Tracy’s winds. Precisely how high the windspeed reached is not known; the equipment at the airport registered over 200km/hr before it was ripped from its moorings. Estimates go as high as 300 km/hr.
Darwin was not a place that the rest of Australia gave much thought to at that time. Down in the southeastern corner it was regarded as a wild town where civilisation had yet to properly take hold. Ironically, the last time that Darwin achieved national prominence before Tracy was 1942, when the Japanese bombed the city after taking Singapore. The cyclone’s aftermath filled newspapers and tv news for weeks and months afterward. Most of the population was shifted away.
There are more pictures – check out the twisted girders – at Enjoy Darwin’s page about Tracy. Google Images will offer scene after scene that resemble nothing so much as Hiroshima after the bomb.
Australians aren’t naive about the power of nature; we’re reminded of it every summer when the bushfire season arrives. Tracy showed us a different aspect of nature’s destructive fury. I’m sure that for my parents and grandparents the scenes of ruin echoed the newsreels they’d seen at the cinemas during WW2. For my generation it was a new experience to see a human settlement blown to oblivion – and by what? I imagined a cyclone was just a thunderstorm, basically, but bigger and angrier. It seems a miracle that the Sun‘s guesstimate of a hundred dead was an overshoot. The official records show that Tracy claimed only sixty-six lives.
Many more were injured, and many of the evacuees chose to not return at all. Darwin was always going to be rebuilt; it is our northernmost port and the closest to South-East Asia. That the rebuilding was so successful can be attributed in part to Major-General Alan Stretton, who took charge of the disaster area in his role as head of the National Disaster Organisation. My impression of Stretton, looking back forty years, is of a man in the right place at the right time. He delivered leadership, which was what the residents needed. Stretton was the rock to whom all could cling. If I recall correctly Gough Whitlam paid a visit a few days after the cyclone and said to Stretton, in essence, I’ll leave you to it. He didn’t interfere – and Whitlam was a man who knew everybody’s job better than they did.
Another Tracy is inevitable. It’s only a matter of time. Although there are still disputes about some aspects of the rebuilding, Darwin today is better prepared for disaster than it was in 1974. The strongest memory for the survivors is the sound of the cyclone – captured here by David Keynes.