Remembering Cyclone Tracy

Season greetings, but while you’re sitting down to Christmas dinner, spare a thought for those who died in the devastating cyclone that struck Darwin on Christmas Day in 1974.

Reaching speeds of 240km/h, Tracy killed 65 people cutting a path of destruction through an ill-prepared city.

My cousin lived through the event taking shelter in a robust bank building.

At its peak he says the noise was so loud he couldn’t hear what others were saying, even if they shouted right in your ear.

Two sailors died when HMAS Arrow, an Attack-class patrol boat, sank at Stokes Hill Wharf.

At Darwin Airport, 31 aircraft were destroyed and another 25 badly damaged.

Cyclone Tracy caused $837 million in damage and destroyed more than 70 percent of Darwin’s buildings, including 80 percent of houses.

More than 41,000 out of the 47,000 inhabitants were left homeless forcing the evacuation of more than 30,000 people – most were evacuated to Adelaide, Whyalla, Alice Springs and Sydney (many never returned).

As the storm made landfall in the early hours of Christmas Day the majority of media outlets were manned by only a skeleton crew and it took some time for the news to reach the rest of Australia.

At the time Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was in Sicily and flew back immediately to Darwin when he heard the news.

Police said “Darwin had, for the time being, ceased to exist as a city”.

An emergency response committee was formed, composed of several high-ranking public servants.

A mass evacuation by road and air began and all Defence personnel, along with the Air Force’s entire fleet of transport planes, were recalled from holiday leave and deployed to evacuate civilians from Darwin – as well as to bring essential relief supplies to the area.

Thirteen ships of the Royal Australian Navy were used to transport supplies to the area as part of Operation Navy Help Darwin; the largest humanitarian or disaster relief operation ever performed by the Navy.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and the flimsy city was rebuilt to more stringent “cyclone” standards.

A legacy of the event is the 1975 song, Santa Never Made It into Darwin, composed by Bill Cate and performed by Bill and Boyd  (Bill Cate and Boyd Robinson) – to raise money for the relief and reconstruction efforts.

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