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

Cyclone tracey darwin

Cyclone Tracy was a tropical cyclone that ravaged Darwin city, Northern Territory, Australia from 24th to the 26th of December in the year 1974.

Where Is Darwin?

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 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, generated A$837 million in damages (1974 dollars), or around A$6.85 billion (2018 dollars), or equivalent to $4.79 billion 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 to 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 phenomona. 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 complete 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 the majority of homes and buildings being totally 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 let the world know of the disaster, & relief measures were soon begun. An airlift involving civilian & military aircraft was quickly organised, while many residents decided to drive out. Within several weeks, three-quarters of Darwin’s residents had left.

This was not the first time Darwin’s city had been severely damaged by a cyclone: 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 had experienced a period of rapid expansion. E.P. Milliken determined that 43,500 people were living 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 of 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 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 on in the evening, the Darwin meteorological office obtained an infrared satellite image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s satellite, 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) north-east 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 in a southwesterly direction, moving north of Darwin on the 22nd of December. A broadcast on ABC Radio that day 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

Impact

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., with the wind vane (wind direction) 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. The uncommon roar of cyclonic winds that you only hear in severe tropical storms. Torrential rain and destruction. In the sound file below you can hear the narrator describing 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 the destructive winds. The residents were witnessing something they will never forget.

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

Actual recording of Tropical Cyclone Tracy

Evacuation and the Public Response

Cyclone Tracy Damage

Cyclone Tracy killed at least 66 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 the substantial destruction of the township of Darwin.

At Darwin Airport, thirty-one aircraft were obliterated & another twenty-five badly 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 still 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 Darwin City had been struck by a cyclone and that a major natural disaster had occurred.

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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, the 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.

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 took place.

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 took charge for keeping 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 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 (mostly 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 either the 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 made attempts 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 for the relief funds. Darwin families were also given preference on 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

Aftermath

Reconstruction and effects on Darwin

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

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 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 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 the year 1978, much of the city had recovered & was able to house around the same amount 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 essentially 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 with 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

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Cyclone Tracy Measurements & Intensity

The Bureau of Meteorology’s official estimations suggested that Tracy’s gusts had touched 240 kilometres per hour (150 mph). The lowest air pressure reading throughout Tracy 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 mbar. However, the actual lowest barometric pressure was 950 mbar. This data was recorded by a Bureau of Meteorology faculty member at the Darwin airfield.

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 over 170 kilometres per hour, and the complete devastation caused back up this claim.

Was Cyclone Tracy the worst cyclone in Australia?

When Cyclone Tracy struck Darwin on Christmas morning 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 Australias 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 as one of Australia’s worst cyclones and could be considered Australias largest cyclone ever recorded by its sheer size. It covered most of Queensland with cloud.

What is the strongest cyclone ever recorded worldwide?

Tropical Typhoon Tip

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

Some Great Books About Cyclone Tracy


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