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On 24 December 1974 Cyclone Tracy virtually destroyed Darwin.
The next morning, most of Darwin's population of 48 000 people found themselves homeless, due to the largest natural disaster in Australia's written history.
The Northern Territory Library's Cyclone Tracy collection has original records, photographs and documents. It includes the full list of evacuees of nearly 48,000 names, recording one of the biggest logistical peacetime evacuations ever in Australia.
The Library also holds a copy off the Red Cross list of evacuees, which recorded the names of people who passed through Katherine on their way south.
Queen and Prince Phillip inspect the plaque dedicated to Cyclone Tracy victims at
Darwin Civic Centre entrance, Harry Chan Avenue.
Northern Territory Government Photographer Collection.
Darwin in 1974
By 1974, Darwin was home to around 48,000 people.
Although building standards needed some attention to the threat of cyclones, rapid housing expansion meant that many new houses were inadequately constructed to withstand forces of high winds or flying debris.
Cyclones are a part of the Top End Wet Season. Earlier in December 1974 Cyclone Selma had hovered around Darwin before changing course and disappearing. There was a widespread belief that Tracy would behave in a similar way.
Most Darwin residents focussed on celebrating Christmas and preparing for the holiday break. Still, many individuals, businesses and government departments did prepare against the threat of Cyclone Tracy.
Early on 20 December 1974, a tropical low formed in the Arafura Sea, about 700km northeast of Darwin. The low started to drift southwest, predicted to hit Darwin on Christmas Day.
Cyclone Tracy formally came into existence at 10am on 21 December 1974, when it lay well to Darwin's north. On 24 December, Tracy rounded Cape Fourcroy, Bathurst Island's western tip, and moved along an east-south-easterly course towards Darwin.
See Cyclone Tracy's path .
Late afternoon on 24 December 1974, Darwin was covered by low heavy clouds, with rain squalls and wind gusts increasing in intensity.
At around 10pm the winds began to cause physical damage to the city.
Approaching midnight, the damage was becoming more serious as Cyclone Tracy was about to pass across the city. Over the next six hours, Tracy substantially destroyed Darwin.
Read the Cyclone Tracy statistics.
Records identified 66 people who died from Cyclone Tracy. 53 were on land and 13 at sea.
A previous official record was adjusted when, on 17 March 2005, a new Coroner's report stated that six people missing at sea were officially deceased - perished at sea.
The Coroner's report came about after the wrecks of the MV Booya and the Darwin Princess were found in 2003 and 2004 respectively.
Aftermath and initial response
At 2pm on Christmas Day, the Commissioner convened a 'leadership' meeting to evaluate the damage and meet again at 6pm.
At 10.20pm Major-General Stretton, Director of the National Disasters Organisation, arrived at Darwin and met with the Commissioner of Police, the Director of Emergency Services, the Secretary of the Department of the Northern Territory and the Minister for the Northern Territory.
Following Stretton's arrival, the role of the Commissioner became subsidiary, but the responsibilities of police officers nevertheless stay wide ranging and exhausting.
In the afternoon of 27 December 1974, local police were given welcome relief when 184 officer arrived, on loan from interstate forces.
Between then and the end of January 1975, 387 interstate officers served in Darwin.
When news of the cyclone reached the wider Australian community, fund raising and 'in kind' help efforts started immediately. Community groups of all kinds launched fundraising activities and other initiatives designed to give practical help to cyclone victims. This was often by adopting members of kindred Darwin groups.
Major reception centres were set up at Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs.
At Adelaide River, the small local population achieved the immense task of providing a hot meal for every person who stopped there on their way out of Darwin.
At each major airport, refugees were greeted by Salvation Army and Red Cross workers. Clothing depots were improvised inside the airports for those who had flown out in pyjamas or without shoes.
Information centres were set up in each state, with the Red Cross keeping lists of refugees and their temporary addresses. Newspapers were published for Darwin refugees, often with reassuring personal news.
Public housing waiting lists were waived to give Darwin families priority in the allocation of accommodation.
The priorities for air evacuation are shown in the table below.
|Priority 1||Pregnant women, the sick and injured|
|Priority 2||Women and children only, unless the father was decided as essential to the well-being of the group|
|Priority 3||Elderly people|
|Priority 4||Married couples|
|Priority 5||Single people|
The evacuation numbers in December 1974 are shown in the table below.
|Date||Evacuation by air||Evacuation by road|
The Darwin population had reduced to around 10,638 by 31 December 1974.
Restoration and clean up
The Federal Department of Housing and Construction was mainly responsible for the restoration of services.
On 25 December the department opened a special Operation Control Centre at its headquarters in Melbourne and in Darwin.
The department's officers began clearing debris, and restoring power and communications.
Electricity crews removed fallen power lines and hooked up portable generators where these were available.
Damaged and broken water hydrants were sealed off, and pumps were actuated to get the city's water and sewerage systems working again. Tarpaulins were placed over damaged roofs to create basic shelter.
The armed forces played important roles in disaster response.
The Navy provided ships and personnel in the clean up of Darwin. This was difficult, distasteful and sometimes dangerous work.
Read Operation Navy Help.
The Army flew specialist personnel into Darwin to help supply rations, stores, equipment, and specialist vehicles.
The entire Royal Australian Air Force transport fleet airlifted supplies into Darwin and evacuated 9,678 people out of Darwin.
The Northern Territory Newspaper (NT News) was back in production by 31 December 1974.
Read the first edition.
The Darwin Reconstruction Commission was created to carry out Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's January 1975 pledge of “a determined and unremitting effort to rebuild your city and relieve suffering”.
The Commission aimed to reconstruct Darwin within five years. In the end it achieved the task ahead of schedule, in a little more than 3 years.
The members of the Commission were Anthony Powell, Alan O'Brien, Goff Letts, Ella Stack, Carl Allridge, Alan Reiher, P L Till, and Martyn Finger.
Accommodation while Darwin was being constructed included:
- the liner Patris, tied up at Darwin waterfront for nine months to provide emergency accommodation for up to 900 people
- ‘Tracy Village’ was set up for construction workers
- 1700 demountable dwellings and caravans were brought to Darwin and located on house sites
- hotels and hostels were filled up
- where possible short term repairs were done so people could live in damaged houses.
In May 1975 contracts were let to four firms to construct 2,000 homes.
By mid-1978, Darwin could again house its pre-Tracy population.
Darwin's post-cyclone building codes include that buildings must be clad to protect them against flying debris, and that roofs must be tied to the foundations.
2014 marked the 40th anniversary of Cyclone Tracy. A new plaque commemorating those lost in Cyclone Tracy was unveiled at Christ Church Cathedral by Darwin Lord Mayor Katrina Fong Lim.
Read more about Darwin 40 years on after Cyclone Tracy
The Big Picture - Facing Tracy was a Community Project organised by the City of Darwin. Read about The Big Picture.
Information on Cyclone Tracy
Read any of the following for more information on Cyclone Tracy:
Last updated: 11 October 2017