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Cyclone Tracy: a disaster in another time

It is just over 45 years since Cyclone Tracy virtually destroyed Darwin. It was the event which put Darwin on the map for many Australians and the place looked like it had been hit by an atomic bomb!

I am writing from memory and others who experienced the event may have very different recollections. Some of my memories may not be 100% accurate, but I am recounting a picture from a disaster zone.

My family was in many ways very fortunate. We lived in a high-set house, of a type of which many fared very badly. But it was very well constructed, and, apart from some broken windows, we only lost most of the corrugated iron from the roof, while the ceilings managed to remain in situ, sagging in some places. Although it was very wet inside, we actually lost very little, but we heard harrowing tales from friends and acquaintances whose houses has disintegrated around them while all their possessions were scattered to the winds.

Remarkably few people lost their lives and quite a few of those who did, died out at sea. We had invited some of the crew from a ship in the harbour to join us for Christmas dinner, but the ship and all aboard her were lost at sea and only found years later.

Our older two children, who were both under 12, and so still eligible for a cheaper air fare, had flown to England to stay with family over Christmas while their 7-year old brother stayed home in Darwin, on a promise to make the same Christmas holiday trip, in his case solo, when he was 11.

When light broke through the following morning it was to a world where all traces of green seemed to have disappeared. Leaves and palm fronds had been stripped from the trees and the grass was hidden by debris.

But, frightening as the cyclone had been and devastating as was its aftermath, it could not begin to compare with the horrors of being surrounded by fire, as experienced in recent times by so many Australians.

This occurred before the NT was granted self-government, so we were the responsibility of the Federal government.

We had no power for days and no running water. This happened before mobile phones were an item, but there was the odd landline round Darwin which somehow stayed connected – and whose owner received an astonishing bill from then Telecom weeks later, after the phone had been well used by those who found it and shared the knowledge of its location!

On Boxing Day, we learned from the bush telegraph that we could go to the Telecom exchange in the CBD and send, for free, to relieved relatives, a 6-word telegram. Ours, sent to my sister-in-law, with whom the children were staying, said “All well. Tell parents. Keep children.”

At that time, the only flights in or out of Darwin, mostly RAAF Hercules planes, were bringing in officials and supplies and taking out evacuees and we had no idea when the children would be able to return. Once the rush was over, we put our remaining son in the charge of a neighbour’s teenagers to fly down to Sydney and stay with family friends there – a sojourn which he thoroughly enjoyed after the Christmas trauma.

Gough Whitlam was PM and he returned to Australia in short order and, very quickly, Major General Alan Stretton was appointed to be in charge of restoration procedures. I will not dwell on that side of things as others would be far better informed of the way that was managed, but we lived in a money-free community for quite a time while the government was responsible for evacuating those wishing to leave – and some who did not! – and provisioning those who remained.

It was not long before the Navy arrived to clean up the debris, and meantime two High Schools, which had not been badly damaged, were used as supply stores for packaged goods for collection at need, while a cold store at Stuart Park, an inner suburb, was commandeered to provide meat on request. There are always people who abuse such a situation but they are a very small minority.

Many houses had missing doors or swollen door frames, so occupied homes were left unlocked, keys were left in the car ignition and, for a short time, it was an amazing world where we shared the chores, helped with the clean-up, and made sure there was food ready for the workers when they returned after a long and often very laborious day.

In fact on many evenings, while the light lasted, a friend who had scoured the neighbourhood  looking for sheets of corrugated iron in reasonable repair, would turn up and join my husband in covering the roof. I remember when they had finished, they asked me to go up the ladder to look through the hatch to see if there were any obvious holes.

There was, of course, none of the usual sisalation (insulation reflective sheeting) under the iron and the view was of a starry night – the stars being the light seen through the myriad nail holes in the iron! The pair looked so crestfallen when told, but even holey iron was an improvement on none!

Those who stayed in Darwin to help with restoration were allowed two R & R trips in that first year. We took our first one in February, flying down to see the friends who were sheltering our son and have a few days break before welcoming back the older children – there were by then still no overseas flights into Darwin – spend a few days all together before returning for the children to go back to school.

I have always found that unpleasant and painful events seem to be less clearly remembered than do pleasant ones. It is probably a mental safety valve! After all, if a woman clearly remembered the pains of natural childbirth, there might be far more single child families!

What I have written above has highlighted some of the humourous, even enjoyable features of the experience. But what I have also remembered is the help that we received from the Federal government and the defence force members.

There is much more of the story and many other personal aspects which others could add.

But my recollection is of a government which did not hold back in helping, provided us with free food, and transport out for those who could not stay (many had family down south) and the people down south in general, who welcomed strangers from Darwin with open arms.

And whatever it cost, help was seen as the priority.

Those currently suffering loss of family members, homes and livelihoods as a result of the massive bush fires deserve the same. And help must be provided with the realisation that we will suffer similar or even worse disasters until we recognise that global warming is real, is dangerous and costly and cannot be ignored – or denied.

We may need to learn to live with it but we truly cannot afford to ignore it.

Once more – this is my Resolution:

“I will do everything in my power to enable Australia to be restored to responsible government.”

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5 comments

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  1. RomeoCharlie29

    Our experiences differ only in the minor details but your important points, the community spirit and the help provided by others are important and can’t be restated often enough, while providing a template for post-disaster assistance. I drove out of Darwin on New Year’s Eve with two mates. We were in three cars and each of us had one of our three cats. The car I was driving, a Holden Ute, was using more oil than petrol and in fact I didn’t quite get to Kununurra because there was no oil left. My mates carried on, with three cats, arriving back to me a few hours later with lots of oil and news that the cats were being flown to Perth where I had family, free, and we were to be provided not only with food and accommodation, but repairs to all of our vehicles, including a rebuild of the Holden engine. The ten days which followed saw us treated like royalty on every leg of our slow journey south. All at the expense of the West Australian Government but supported by local community groups. Food, fuel, clothing meant we wanted for nothing, just as well because we had nothing. 45 years later this generosity remains significant in my memory. Reunited with my wife in Perth we returned at the end of January ‘75 to participate in the long and contentious rebuild.Like you we are still here.

  2. New England Cocky

    Was the Whitlam government the Camelot of Australian politics? Certainly many in the business community hated the rapid changes of that time, while Rupert Murdoch was called to the Bar of the Senate to explain the pro-COALition bias in his tabloids, and never forgive or forget what the ALP had done to his ego.

    Did you know that Sir Keith Murdoch once worked for the ABC as a newsreader? So why did he object so strongly to the ABC??

  3. Matters Not

    History is often a contest of remembering. Take Whitlam’s return which was even somewhat controversial at that time:

    As Gough may have put it, the alleged event is not so much famous as false,” … Up in the Top End it is folklore that Whitlam was more interested in looking over the ruins of ancient Olympia than the rubble of Darwin …

    Then again context is important as is the source – in this case The Australian. And that’s before it went completely off the rails.

    Whitlam faced substantial public opprobrium for doing so, not so much because he wasn’t interested in empathising with stricken fellow Australians but because it underscored the rising judgment that his government was out of control.”

    https://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/the-art-of-managing-disasters/news-story/a53aa5c406b90e2af00d1e481e024a70

    While I wasn’t there at the time, I remember the ‘event’ which dominated the news for a very long time.

  4. Kerri

    The only correction I would make to your story is that the telephone bill would have come from the Postmaster General or PMG,
    which covered both mail and telecommunications until December 1975 when the department was split into telephone and mail services. Prior to Telstra the government owned telephone service was called Telecom.

  5. RosemaryJ36

    Kerri – thanks. I was involved in a newly formed branch of the FPA and we got a massive bill but I was not Treasurer at the time so had no firsthand involvement in seeing the bill!

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