Tropical Cyclone Tracy – One of the Worst Natural Disasters to Ever Strike Australia

Cyclone tracey darwin

9 Interesting Facts About Cyclone Tracy

  1. It caused widespread destruction, with over 70% of Darwin’s houses suffering serious structural damage.
  2. Cyclone Tracy resulted in the deaths of 71 people and caused serious injuries to 145 others, with over 500 people receiving minor injuries.
  3. The damage bill from the storm was estimated to have topped $800 million, which was a huge sum in 1974.
  4. The cyclone forced the evacuation of Darwin’s entire population, with over 40,000 people being relocated to other parts of Australia.
  5. Cyclone Tracy is considered one of Australia’s worst natural disasters and a defining moment in the country’s history.
  6. The aftermath of the storm led to a complete rebuilding of Darwin, with new building codes and improved infrastructure put in place to help prevent such damage from future cyclones.
  7. Cyclone Tracy was one of the first natural disasters in Australia to be widely covered by the media, bringing the event to be national and international attention.
  8. Despite its severe impact, the response to Cyclone Tracy was widely praised for its efficiency and coordination, with various government and non-government organizations working together to help those affected by the storm.
  9. In the years since Cyclone Tracy, Darwin has been the target of several other severe tropical cyclones. Still, the city has been better able to withstand its impact due to improved planning and infrastructure.

Cyclone Tracy Timeline

  • Cyclone Tracy was a tropical cyclone that hit Darwin, Australia, on December 24-25, 1974. A timeline of events related to the cyclone is as follows:
  • December 20, 1974: The Bureau of Meteorology first issued a tropical cyclone warning for Darwin, indicating the potential for a severe storm.
  • December 24, 1974: Cyclone Tracy made landfall in Darwin, causing widespread damage to the city. The eye of the storm passed directly over the city, with winds reaching speeds of up to 217 km/h.
  • December 25, 1974: The aftermath of Cyclone Tracy was devastating, with up to 90% of the city’s buildings destroyed and widespread flooding. The death toll was officially reported as 65 people, but it is estimated that up to 71 people lost their lives in the storm.
  • December 26, 1974: An evacuation of the city began, with around 35,000 residents being evacuated to other parts of Australia.
  • January 1975: The reconstruction of Darwin began, with the Australian government launching a rebuilding program aimed at restoring the city to its former state.

These are the major events that took place during the timeline of Cyclone Tracy. The storm significantly impacted the city of Darwin, and its residents continue to remember and reflect on the tragedy even today.

Consequences of Cyclone Tracy

  • Destruction of infrastructure: The cyclone caused significant damage to the city’s infrastructure, with more than 70% of the city’s homes and buildings destroyed or severely damaged. Many of the city’s utilities, including power, water, and telecommunications, were disrupted, and debris from the storm blocked roads and made it difficult for rescue and recovery efforts.
  • Loss of life: The cyclone caused significant loss of life, with 65 people killed and many more injured.
  • Evacuation of residents: Many residents were forced to evacuate the city. The cyclone impacted the city’s population, with many people moving away permanently after the disaster.
  • Economic impact: The cyclone also significantly impacted the city of Darwin and the surrounding region, with damage estimated at over AUD 1 billion (equivalent to over AUD 6 billion in 2021). The disaster disrupted local businesses and industries, including tourism and fishing, and required significant rebuilding efforts to repair the damage caused by the cyclone.
  • Improved disaster response: Despite the devastation caused by Cyclone Tracy, the disaster led to improvements in the way that the Australian government and community respond to cyclones and other natural disasters, with better warning systems and emergency planning in place to help protect lives and property in the event of future storms.

Where Is Darwin?

Darwin is located in the Northern Territory of Australia. It is almost 4000 kilometres northwest of Sydney, with flight times of around four hours from major cities in Australia. Airlines such as Air North, Jetstar, Qantas and Virgin Australia fly to Darwin International Airport. The city can also be reached by bus with Greyhound Australia or by train on the Ghan from Port Augusta (SA) or Alice Springs (NT) with Great Southern Rail.

What Happened

The small, developing easterly storm had been witnessed passing clear of the city initially. It then unpredictably turned towards the city of Darwin early on the 24th of December. Following 10:00 p.m. ACST, the destruction became severe, & wind gusts reached around 217 kilometres per hour (134.84 mph) before weather instrumentation failed.

The weather anemometer in the Darwin Airport control tower had its pin bent in half by the cyclonic wind strength.

Residents of Darwin were rejoicing Christmas & did not immediately recognise the emergency, partially because they had been alerted to an earlier cyclone threat (Selma) that crossed west of the city. Additionally, news outlets had only a support crew on duty over the holiday period.

Tracy killed 71 people and generated A$837 million in damages (1974 dollars), or around A$6.85 billion (2018 dollars), equivalent to $4.79 billion in 2018 USD.

It obliterated more than 70 per cent of Darwin’s buildings and structures, including 80 per cent of houses. It left over 25,000 out of the 47,000 inhabitants of the city displaced & homeless before landfall.

It necessitated the evacuation of over 30,000 people, of whom many never returned. After the storm crossed, the town was rebuilt using more rigorous standards “to cyclone code” in building development plans.

The storm was the second-smallest tropical cyclone in recorded history (in terms of gale-force wind diameter), following Tropical Storm Marco in 2008.

Cyclone tracy satellite image
Cyclone tracy satellite image

Tropical Cyclone Tracy is arguably the most significant and strongest tropical cyclone in Australia’s meteorological history accounting for 71 lives, flattening most of Darwin & deeply affecting the Australian viewpoint of the tropical cyclone threat.

By world weather standards, Tracy was a small but powerful tropical cyclone at landfall. The gale-force winds radius was just 50 km, which is extremely small compared to a typical cyclone. The anemometer at Darwin Airport registered a gust of 217 km/h before the instrument was decimated.

Tracy was first identified as a tropical depression in the Arafura Sea on the 20th of December, 1974. It drifted slowly southwest & intensified, moving close to Bathurst Island on the 23rd & the 24th.

It turned sharply to the east-southeast, & headed straight at Darwin, punching into the city early on Christmas Day. Warnings were announced, but perhaps because it was Christmas eve, no one was alarmed and underestimated the power of this natural phenomenon. Probably because no severe cyclone had hit Darwin in many years – many inhabitants were caught unprepared.

But even had there been complete compliance, the sequence of extremely powerful winds, & the loose plan of many buildings and structures at that time was such that destruction was plausibly inevitable anyhow.

Forty-nine people lost their lives in the city, & an additional sixteen died at sea. Darwin’s entire fabric of life was catastrophically interrupted, with most homes and buildings being demolished or badly damaged, & very few escaping unharmed. The total disaster bill ran into hundreds of millions of dollars.

As usual in such tragedies, many transmission links failed, but enough remained to inform the world of the disaster, & relief measures were soon begun. An airlift involving civilian & military aircraft was quickly organised, but many residents decided to drive out. Within several weeks, three-quarters of Darwin’s residents had left.

This was not the first time a cyclone had severely damaged Darwin’s city: it was seriously battered in January 1897 & March 1937.

But as a consequence of Tracy, much more awareness was given to building codes & other social aspects of disaster preparation. Darwin was rebuilt & now thrives as one of our most prominent gateways to Asia.

Cyclone damage and aftermath

Darwin Is Unprepared For What Comes

The city of Darwin had been seriously battered by cyclones before, in January 1897 & again in March 1937. Nevertheless, in the 20 years leading up to Cyclone Tracy, the city experienced a period of rapid expansion. E.P. Milliken determined that 43,500 people lived in 12,000 residences in the Darwin area on the eve of the cyclone.

Though construction standards at the time dictated that some attention be given to the occurrence of cyclones, most buildings were not proficient in enduring the force of a cyclone’s direct hit.

On the day of the cyclone, most inhabitants of Darwin believed that the cyclone would not cause any destruction to the city. Cyclone Selma had been warned to hit Darwin earlier on in the month.

It instead went north & dissipated without affecting Darwin in any way. As a consequence, Cyclone Tracy caught most Darwin inhabitants by surprise. Despite numerous warnings, Darwin’s people did not evacuate or prepare themselves for the severe tropical cyclone.

Many residents proceeded to prepare for Christmas, & many attended Christmas parties, despite the growing winds & heavy rain. Journalist Bill Bunbury questioned the residents of Darwin sometime following the cyclonic catastrophe.

He wrote about the survivors’ experiences in his book Cyclone Tracy, picking up the pieces. Darwin Inhabitant Dawn Lawrie, a 1971 independent nominee for the electorate of Nightcliff, informed him:

We’d had a cyclone warning only 10 days before Tracy [that another cyclone] was coming, it was coming, and it never came. So when we started hearing about Tracy, we were all a little blasé.

(Bunbury, p. 20)

Another citizen, Barbara Langkrens, stated:

And you started to almost think that it would never happen to Darwin even though we had cyclone warnings on the radio all the time … most of the people who had lived here for quite some time didn’t really believe the warnings.

(Bunbury, p. 21)

Cyclone tracey darwin

The Monster Flexes Its Muscle

On the 20th of December 1974, the United States ESSA-8 environmental satellite registered a large cloud mass centred over the Arafura Sea around 370 kilometres (230 mi) northeast of Darwin.

This tropical disturbance was traced by the Darwin Weather Bureau’s regional director Ray Wilkie & senior meteorologist Geoff Crane. On the 21st of December 1974, the ESSA-8 satellite revealed a newly formed circular centre near latitude 8° south & longitude 135° east.

Crane, the meteorological duty officer, announced the initial tropical cyclone alert reporting the storm as a tropical low that could strengthen into a tropical cyclone.

Later in the evening, the Darwin meteorological office obtained an infrared satellite image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s NOAA-4, registering that the low pressure had evolved further & that spiralling clouds could be seen.

The storm was officially declared a tropical cyclone at about 10 p.m. on the 21st of December when it was about 200 kilometres (120 mi) to the north-north-east of Cape Don (360 kilometres (220 mi) northeast of Darwin). Cyclone Tracy was first seen on the Darwin radar on the daybreak of the 22nd of December.

Over the next few days, the cyclone passed southwesterly, moving north of Darwin on the 22nd of December. That day, a broadcast on ABC Radio said that Cyclone Tracy posed no direct threat to Darwin.

However, early on the 24th of December, Tracy rounded Cape Fourcroy on the westerly tip of Bathurst Island, & moved in a southeasterly direction, directly towards Darwin. The Bureau’s weather station at Cape Fourcroy recorded a mean wind speed of 120 kilometres per hour (75 mph) at 9:00 that same morning.

Cyclone tracey darwin


By the late afternoon on the 24th of December, the sky above the city was profoundly overcast, with low clouds, & heavy rain. Wind gusts developed in strength; between 10 p.m. (local time) & midnight, the destruction became serious, & residents started to realise that the cyclone would not simply pass by the city but first over it.

On the 25th of December at around 3:30 a.m., Tracy’s centre struck Fannie Bay’s coast. The strongest recorded wind gust from the cyclone was 217 kilometres per hour (135 mph), which was reported around 3:05 a.m. at Darwin Airport.

The anemometer (wind speed instrument) broke at around 3:10 a.m., and the wind vane (wind direction) was destroyed following the cyclone’s eye.

The residents of Darwin were greeted with a wall of destructive winds and torrential rainfall that can only be experienced in a cyclone of this ferocity. It can only be described as an unnatural sound of fast-moving air. You only hear the uncommon roar of cyclonic winds in severe tropical storms—torrential rain and destruction. In the sound file below, the narrator describes the sound as loud.

Their ears were popping, much like your ears pop when you climb a mountain range, as the pressure inside of a cyclone is extremely low. Air rushing into the centre of the intense cyclone, much like water draining down a sinkhole, causes destructive winds. The residents were witnessing something they will never forget.

Unnerving sounds of sheet metal and branches ripped off trees and nearby structures and debris thrown through the air at a deadly speed. The sound and the moment would have been terrifying.

An Actual Sound Recording of Tropical Cyclone Tracy

Evacuation and the Public Response

Cyclone Tracy Damage

Cyclone Tracy killed 71 individuals. Two Royal Australian Navy (RAN) sailors drowned when HMAS Arrow, an Attack-class patrol boat, sank at Stokes Hill Wharf. The tropical storm also produced substantial destruction to the township of Darwin.

At Darwin Airport, thirty-one aircraft were obliterated & another twenty-five were severely damaged. The initial assessment put the reported death toll at 65. However, it was reviewed upwards in March 2005 to 71. The Northern Territory Coroner announced that those six who remained classified as missing had “perished at sea”.

Several factors hindered the distribution of the news of the cyclone’s force. The destruction of transportation infrastructure & the interval between Darwin & the rest of the Australian population played an enormous role.

The tropical storm made landfall on Christmas Day, & most media outlets had only a skeleton crew rostered on at best.

Most Australians were not conscious of the cyclone till late in the afternoon. Dick Muddimer, a correspondent for the local ABC channel, 8DR, travelled through the ruins to local television station NTD & had the ABC station in Mount Isa, Queensland tell ABC headquarters in Sydney that a cyclone had struck Darwin City and that a major natural disaster had occurred.

Cyclone tracey darwin

An initial emergency response team and a committee were organised. The committee, comprised of several high-level public servants & police, pronounced that:

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

At the time, Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam was touring Syracuse, Sicily, & flew to Darwin upon learning of the natural disaster.

Additionally, the Australian government launched a mass evacuation by road & air, all of the Defence Force personnel throughout Australia, simultaneously with the entire Royal Australian Air Force’s fleet of transport planes, were assembled from holiday leave & deployed to relocate civilians from Darwin, as well as to bring vital relief supplies to the region.

Thirteen RAN ships were used to carry supplies to the site as part of Operation Navy Help Darwin, the Navy’s largest humanitarian or disaster relief operation.

Major-General Alan Stretton, Director-General of the governmental body Natural Disasters Organisation, & the Commonwealth Minister for the Northern Territory, Rex Patterson, landed at Darwin Airport late on Christmas Day & took command of the relief endeavours.

After assessing the situation & conferences with the Department of the Northern Territory & the appropriate minister, it was decided that Darwin’s population needed to be decreased to a “safe level” of 10,500 people.

This choice was made based on the recommendation of Dr Charles Gurd, the Director of Health in the Northern Territory. About 10,000 people left Darwin & the neighbouring area within the first two days.

Remains of raaf dakota a behind darwin aviation museum may
The remains of raaf dakota a65-104, which was destroyed in cyclone tracy. A65-104 was the aircraft that took 5acs members for those first flights from the newly completed 11/29 airstrip in 1959.

Still, the departures’ movement then started to slow down. The government then confirmed his position, offering full reimbursement of individual costs as long as the evacuation occurred.

The community was evacuated by air & ground. Because of communications problems with Darwin airport, the landing was restricted to one plane every ninety minutes. At major airports, crews of federal & Territory department officials & the Salvation Army & Red Cross workers met refugees.

The Red Cross kept track of the refugees’ names & temporary homes. According to need, women, children, & the elderly & sick were evacuated initially. There were reports of men donning up as women to escape with the early evacuations. Between the 26th & the 31st of December, a sum of 35,362 people were evacuated from Darwin.

Of these, 25,628 were evacuated by air & planes, the rest by road. By the 31st of December, barely 10,638 people (primarily men needed to help clean up the city) remained in Darwin. Stretton also controlled access to the town using a grant system. Permits were only issued to those included in relief or reconstruction endeavours.

They were used to stop the early return of those who had been evacuated.

Upon getting news of the damage, various community groups across Australia began fundraising & relief efforts to help the survivors. Major reception centres remained set up in centres such as Katherine, Tennant Creek & Alice Springs.

Several small towns on the Stuart Highway attempted to assist people escaping by road, providing them with food, fuel, rest, & mechanical assistance. At Adelaide River, the small local community offered hot meals to the refugees who stayed there.

Nearly twenty-four hours after the storm hit Darwin, Alice Springs’ population had accumulated over $105,000 to support Tracy’s victims. In Melbourne, at the Boxing Day Test cricket competition between Australia and England, both teams moved around the boundaries transporting buckets.

The crowd tossed cash into the relief funds. Darwin families were also given preference in the public housing waiting for listings. On the 31st of December 1974, Stretton advised that full civilian control recommence in Darwin, & handed over power of the city to its elected officials.

Cyclone tracey darwin


Reconstruction and its effects on Darwin

In February 1975, Whitlam declared the Darwin Reconstruction Commission’s creation, which was tasked with reconstructing the city “within five years”, focusing principally on building houses. Tony Powell directed the Commission.

The destruction of the city was so severe that some supported moving the entire town.

Nevertheless, the government insisted that it be reconstructed in the same area. By May 1975, Darwin’s population had improved somewhat, with 30,000 living in the city.

Temporary housing, caravans, hotels & an ocean liner, MV Patris, were employed to house people. Reconstruction of permanent housing had not yet started by September of that same year. Ella Stack succeeded in becoming the Mayor of Darwin in May 1975 & was heavily linked in its restoration.

Still, by the following April, & after receiving criticism for the slow recovery speed, the Commission had built 3,000 new homes in the almost destroyed northern suburbs, & finished repairs to those who persevered after the storm.

Numerous new building codes were drawn up, trying to achieve the competing intentions of the area’s fast recovery & guaranteeing that there would be no repeat of the disaster that Darwin endured in 1974.

By 1978, much of the city had recovered & was able to house around the same number of people as before the cyclone hit. Nevertheless, by the 1980s, as numerous as sixty per cent of Darwin’s 1974 population had left, never to come back.

Darwin was almost wholly rebuilt in the years that ensued. It now shows no likeness to the pre-Tracy Darwin city of December 1974.

Even though a Legislative Assembly had been set up beforehand in the year, the Northern Territory had only minimum self-government, with a federal minister accountable for the Territory from Canberra.

Still, the cyclone & subsequent responses highlighted several obstacles to how the regional parliament was set up. This led Malcolm Fraser, Whitlam’s replacement as Prime Minister, to give self-government to the Territory in 1978.

Many government documents associated with Cyclone Tracy became openly available on the 1st of January 2005 under the 30-year rule.

Cyclone tracey darwin

Darwin Reconstruction Commission

The Darwin Reconstruction Commission was an Australian government body established in the wake of Cyclone Tracy, which struck the city of Darwin in the Northern Territory on Christmas Day in 1974. The commission was responsible for coordinating the rebuilding and reconstruction efforts in the city, which suffered significant damage due to the cyclone.

The federal government established the commission in January 1975, and it was chaired by the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr. It included representatives from the Northern Territory government, local authorities, community groups, and technical experts in engineering, urban planning, and public health.

The commission worked closely with the government of the Northern Territory and local authorities to develop a plan to rebuild and reconstruct Darwin. This included assessing the damage caused by the cyclone, identifying the resources required for the rebuilding effort, and coordinating the provision of housing, infrastructure, and other services to the community.

The commission was dissolved in 1979 after the rebuilding and reconstruction efforts in Darwin had been completed. The rebuilding of Darwin was a significant undertaking, with damage estimated at over AUD 1 billion (equivalent to over AUD 6 billion in 2021), and the commission played a crucial role in coordinating the efforts of various government and community groups to rebuild the city and restore it to its former prosperity.

Cyclone Tracy Measurements & Intensity

The Bureau of Meteorology’s official estimations suggested that Tracy’s gusts had touched 240 kilometres per hour (150 mph). Tracy’s lowest air pressure reading was 950 hectopascals (28 inHg), recorded at around 4 a.m. in the early morning by a Bureau staff member at Darwin Airport.

This was reported during the eye of the intense cyclone. From about 6:30 a.m., the winds started to ease, with the rainfall stopping around 8:30 a.m. After making landfall, Tracy rapidly weakened, dispersing on the 26th of December.

Cyclone Tracy Pressure Estimates

In the book Encyclopedia of Hurricanes, Typhoons, & Cyclones 2008 edition, David Longshore pronounces that Cyclone Tracy’s barometric pressure was as deep as 914 hPa. However, the actual lowest barometric pressure was 950 hPa. A Bureau of Meteorology faculty member recorded this data at the Darwin airfield.

How did Cyclone Tracy affect Australia?

Cyclone Tracy was a tropical cyclone that struck the city of Darwin, in the Northern Territory of Australia, on Christmas Day in 1974. The cyclone caused widespread destruction and loss of life, with winds of up to 280 kilometres per hour (174 miles per hour) and a storm surge that flooded much of the city.

The cyclone caused significant damage to the city’s infrastructure, with more than 70% of the city’s homes and buildings destroyed or severely damaged. Many of the city’s utilities, including power, water, and telecommunications, were disrupted, and debris from the storm blocked roads and made it difficult for rescue and recovery efforts.

The cyclone also caused significant loss of life, with 65 people killed and many more injured. Many residents were forced to evacuate the city, and the cyclone had a lasting impact on the city’s population, with many people moving away permanently after the disaster.

Despite the devastation caused by Cyclone Tracy, the city of Darwin has since been rebuilt and has become a thriving and vibrant community. The disaster also improved how the Australian government and community respond to cyclones and other natural disasters, with better warning systems and emergency planning to help protect lives and property in future storms.

Click here to see Cyclone Tracy Track Map & Data

People Also Ask

Was Cyclone Tracy a Category 5?

While Tracy was documented as a category four cyclone, some meteorologists now think it may have been a category five soon before it made landfall. It had peak wind gusts of over 170 kilometres per hour, and the complete devastation caused backed up this claim.

Was Cyclone Tracy the worst cyclone in Australia?

When Cyclone Tracy struck Darwin on Christmas morning in 1974, it was a disaster that left little unscathed. With gusts of more than 200km/h, Tracy left more than half the city’s 43,000 residents displaced.

In terms of lives lost & the volume of damage it caused, it could be regarded as Australia’s worst-ever cyclone. Although Cyclone Mahina, which struck Bathurst Bay in Queensland in 1899, caused approximately 300 deaths, its structural devastation was less severe than Tracy’s. Cyclone Yasi was also named one of Australia’s worst cyclones and could be considered Australia’s largest cyclone ever recorded by its sheer size. It covered most of Queensland with clouds.

What is the strongest cyclone ever recorded worldwide?

The most powerful tropical cyclone ever recorded worldwide, measured by minimum barometric central pressure, was Typhoon Tip, which reached its lowest pressure of 870 hPa (25.69 inHg) on October 12, 1979.

What safety measures should be taken in the event of a category 4 cyclone?

In the event of a Category 4 cyclone, the following safety measures should be taken:

  • Seek shelter in a strong and secure building, such as a designated storm shelter or a small interior room of a strong building.
  • Stock up on non-perishable food, water, and supplies to last several days in case of power outages and road closures.
  • Charge all electronics, such as cell phones, in case of power outages.
  • Secure loose outdoor items that could be blown away, such as outdoor furniture and grills.
  • Keep a battery-powered radio or TV to get updates on the storm’s progress and any evacuation orders.
  • Keep important documents, such as IDs and insurance papers, in a waterproof and easily accessible location.
  • If you live in a low-lying area, consider evacuating to a safer location.
  • Avoid driving or walking through flooded streets, as the water can be contaminated or deeper than it appears.
  • Stay away from windows, and avoid using the telephone, except in emergency situations.
  • Follow the instructions of local authorities, including evacuation orders, and avoid calling emergency services unless it is an absolute emergency.

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