On this day in history: Cyclone Tracy

By Carlie O'Connell | December 17, 2014

In 1974, Territorians had to pitch in together on Christmas morning after raging Cyclone Tracy flattened 70 per cent of Darwin.

IT’S CHRISTMAS EVE, 1974. Rain had been falling heavily from about lunchtime and the wind strength had picked up during the day. The residents of Darwin were busy being cheerful.

Radio announcements about an incoming tropical cyclone could be heard, but faded into the background, drowned out by the crinkling sounds of present wrapping and the delicious smell of Christmas food.

It wasn’t until the dark of midnight, on Christmas day, 25 December 1974, that Cyclone Tracy really began to make an impact. In the seven hours it took for the cyclone to pass over Darwin roughly 70 per cent of the small capital city was destroyed.

Up to 71 people were killed in the chaos, 16 of them lost at sea. A bill of $500-600 million dollars was also racked up (which would amount to roughly $2.5-3 billion today), as planes, cars, powerlines and structures were whipped across streets destroying buildings and infrastructure.

Cyclone Tracy’s path 

Cyclone Tracy was just an unnamed weak tropical low about 700km north-east of Darwin on 10 December when it was first detected. Eleven days later the low developed into a cyclone that wasn’t moving directly towards Darwin.

Today it’s widely suggested that an earlier cyclone, Selma, had also left Darwin with a false sense of security. The Category 2 cyclone had been on course for the city in early in December, but skirted the coastline, only touching Darwin with wind lashings and rain.

The last significant storm event to hit Darwin before Tracy had been a Category 3 or 4 cyclone in March 1937, almost 40 years before. (It was unnamed as naming didn’t become common until the 1960s).

On December 24, at midnight, Tracy changed direction and moved around Bathurst Island headed straight towards Darwin.

Cyclone Tracy’s movements in December 1974. (Source: BOM) 

First warning of Cyclone Tracy

The first cyclone warning was issued at 12.30pm and the storm made landfall at just after midnight that evening. Winds reached their known peak at 3:05am at 217km/h, before the only recording device was destroyed. 

The electricity in Darwin failed entirely at around 3.30am. At 4am the eye of the cyclone, measuring 8km in diameter, passed across the city. All essential services including power, communication, water and sewerage went down.

Theoretical calculations based on based on the central pressure of the cyclone suggested the wind would have peaked at 280km/h. These winds tore the small town apart. Adding to the impact, Tracy only crept along at 10km/h, hovering over the city for several hours.

In a 1999 story by the ABC’s ‘7:30 Report’, Mike Hayes, a former ABC journalist, described the sound as like “the whole world screeching; a giant’s fingers on every blackboard in the world, as all this rubbish just slowly took off and scraped along the surface of the road.”

Cyclone Tracy’s aftermath 

Tracy would eventually be classed as a Category 4 cyclone, in a range from 1 (being the least damaging) to 5 (most damaging). It’s still considered Australia’s most damaging cyclone to date. 

After its catastrophic passage, roughly 30,000 people were left homeless and only 6 per cent of the houses were considered more-or-less intact (apart from their windows).

Between 26 and 31 December, a total of 35,362 people were evacuated from Darwin by civilian and military aircraft, while others drove away with their own vehicles.

Roughly 10,500 stayed to help clean up the city. The Aussies pulled together and less than 24 hours after the catastrophic event, the tiny population of the second-largest city in the Northern Territory, Alice Springs, raised over $100,000 (worth roughly $700,000 today) to assist the victims of Darwin.

Reconstruction and cyclone-proof housing

In February 1975, then-prime minister Gough Whitlam announced the creation of the Darwin Reconstruction Commission.

It rebuilt key infrastructure and many homes between 1974 and 1978, and city grew with the arrival of construction workers and their families. By 1975 the population had already recovered to roughly 30,000.

The reconstruction of Darwin officially wound up in mid-1978, by which time it could again house its pre-Tracy population numbers. However, it was a city that looked very different.

“A lot of the old buildings in Darwin in 1974 were constructed in what we would call Queenslander style, where the main body of the house is elevated and underneath you would put the car or the rumpus room in or something like that,” says Kevin Walsh, an associate professor at the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

“The problem with those houses is that they don’t hold particularly well during tropical cyclones. The types of buildings that were built after that were much lower set.”

 

Extra reporting by Jeremy Wolff and Natsumi Penberthy

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