25 December 1974
Early on Christmas morning, 1974, Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin. It remains the most significant, and one of the most compact and powerful, tropical cyclones to hit Australia since European settlement. As the eye of the cyclone passed over the city between midnight and 7.00 am, torrential rain fell and winds were officially recorded at 217 km/h (that is, until the Bureau of Meteorology anemometer was destroyed). The noise was deafening, with hurricane winds, flying debris, and breaking glass all around. More than 70% of Darwin’s buildings (over 80% of homes) were destroyed or suffered severe damage, leaving close to 90% of the city’s 47,000 inhabitants homeless. All public services – communications, power, water and sewerage – were severed.
Cyclone Tracy killed 71 people and caused A$837 million in damage (equivalent to around A$4.45 billion in 2014 value). Approximately 30,000 of Darwin’s residents were evacuated, mostly to Adelaide and Sydney, and many never returned to the city. After the storm passed, the city was physically rebuilt using modern materials and updated building techniques, but some would argue that the communities existing before the cyclone were gone forever.
Every year from October to May, northern Australia is at risk of cyclones. Some of the strongest since records began include Cyclones Yasi (2011), George (2007), Joan (1975), Innisfail (1918), and Mahina (1899), all of which were classed as Category 5. Cyclones Larry (2006), Ingrid (2005), Bobby (1995), Orson (1989), Alby (1978), Tracy (1974), Althea (1971), Ada (1970), and Mackay (1918) were all Category 4. Many left widespread destruction in their wake.
A natural disaster of the magnitude of Cyclone Tracy – like our most serious bushfires – has the potential to create both fear and sadness. Fear and anxiety for the safety of oneself, loved ones, and possessions, combined with sadness and despair at the enormous losses involved. In 1974, psychosocial approaches to disaster recovery were in their infancy and little attention was paid to mental health and wellbeing. That situation has now changed, and considerable efforts go into preparing people to be psychologically resilient in the cyclone season and to assisting the recovery of those affected.