By New Year’s Eve 1974, Darwin was a ghost town with only 10,638 of more than 45,000 people remaining. All pitched in to the clean up. With very little adequate housing left after the storm, however, most of the city had to be evacuated temporarily. 

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    Cyclone Tracy is remembered as one of Australia’s worst natural disasters. The cyclone hit the small frontier city after an evening of Christmas Eve celebrations in the early hours of 25 December, 1974. By the morning approximately 30,000 people were homeless and 55 per cent of the housing was completely destroyed. Only 6 per cent of houses were left in a condition considered intact (apart from the windows). 

     

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    There had been warning of Cyclone Tracy’s arrival, which had been broadcast over the radio on Christmas Eve. But, in the 10 years between ’64 to ’74, there had been 25 cyclones big enough to be named in the Darwin area that had neve done much damage. Residents say this had made them a bit blasé about Tracy’s arrival. 

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    During the seven hours it took Tracy took to pass over Darwin, 71 people were killed, 13 of them lost at sea. Roughly 70 per cent of the city was flattened as flying infrastructure whirled around in up to 280km/h winds. 

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    Cyclone Tracy was just an unnamed weak tropical low about 700km north-east of Darwin on 10 December when it was first detected. On 24 December, Christmas Eve, it became apparent that Cyclone Tracy would not pass by the city of Darwin. It was just after midnight, on Christmas Day, the storm made landfall in Darwin as a Category 4 cyclone. 

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    The cyclone caused an estimated $500-600 million in damage, amounting to roughly $2.5-3 billion today. 

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    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 $708,803 today) to assist the victims of Darwin.

     

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    After the storm residents emerged to the reality of up to 12,500 homes lost, 25 ships sunk, dozens of planes destroyed and all normal communications cut. 

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    United States airforce planes were employed to evacuate Darwin residents after the storm; the city shrunk from roughly 45,000 to 10,000 people.

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    From destruction to rebuilding. The Darwin Reconstruction Commission rebuilt key infrastructure and many homes between 1974 and ’78. In the years that followed the city grew due to the arrival of construction workers and their families.

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    Residents of the town in 1974 describe Darwin as a fast-growing city before the cyclone, and some say that the rough-and-ready nature of the building didn’t help things when the winds struck. Cyclone building standards for housing across the Top End now mandate that construction includes bolts and brackets that can resist the uplift of hundreds of kilometre-an-hour winds, holding housing structures to foundations. 

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    If you haven’t evacuated, the safest place to be during a cyclone or hurricane, suggests the Bureau of Meteorology, is in the house’s strongest room, like a bathroom, internal hallway or cellar. Stay away from any windows. 

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    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, built to better withstand future cyclones. 

     

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    Popular Queenslander-style homes, where the main body of the house is elevated for ventilation in the heat, were particularly vulnerable to cyclone uplift and buildings in Darwin have since been built lower-set. 

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    In a 1999 story by the ABC’s ‘7:30 Report’, Mike Hayes, a former ABC journalist, described the sound of the cyclone 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.”

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Cyclone Tracy: Images of Christmas Day, 40 years ago

By AG STAFF | December 16, 2014

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 the cyclone to pass over Darwin, it destroyed roughly 70 per cent of the small capital city. In all, 71 people were killed in the chaos, 13 of them lost at sea. A bill of $500-600 million dollars also racked up ($2.5-3 billion today), as planes, cars, power lines and structures were whipped across streets, destroying buildings and infrastructure. But there were sparks of hope amid the destruction. The then-tiny town of Alice Springs raised $100,000 (~$700,000 today) with 24 hours of the tragedy.