For the people of Darwin, Christmas 1974 brought neither peace nor merrymaking. Just after midnight on Christmas Eve Cyclone Tracy struck – leaving the city in ruins. The powerful and compact storm had travelled north of the city two days before, but swung round and headed straight, back. Though warned of the cyclone’s approach, most people chose to continue with Christmas preparations rather than evacuate.
Cyclones were not uncommon and one predicted just ten days earlier had passed by harmlessly.
By the afternoon of Christinas Eve dark rainclouds covered the sky, and during the evening heavy downpours and gusts of wind caused some damage. Later, as Tracy swept over the northern suburbs and the airport, wind speeds of 217 kph (135 mph) were recorded. By dawn the town was absolutely devastated.
In the stricken city, police, volunteers and hard-pressed hospital staff struggled to deal with wreckage and casualties. Darwin’s remoteness, the damage to the communications systems and the fact that it was Christmas Day combined to delay news of the disaster. But relief medical teams arrived late the same day, and the seriously injured were airlifted to safety. The forces were called back from leave and deployed – the navy transported supplies, the airforce started evacuation and army teams worked tirelessly to search and clear collapsed buildings. Temporary water and power supplies were organized and an immunization program was introduced to prevent epidemics. About three quarters of the population left in a government-supported evacuation and relocation program; the men who stayed were involved in the rescue and reconstruction of the city.
A statement at the time declared that Darwin had ‘ceased to exist as a city’. Later, the decision was made to bulldoze and rebuild; modern Darwin bears little resemblance to the town destroyed by Cyclone Tracy.
When: December 25 1974
Where: Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia
Death toll: 70 died – 48 on land and 22 who were at sea when the cyclone struck.
You should know: All over the country, funds were collected for the refugees. Small towns provided food and shelter as those travelling by road passed through. Large sums were collected at the Boxing Day Test Match in Melbourne.