Facts About : The Disaster in Darwin in 1974
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Facts About : The Disaster in Darwin in 1974

For the people of Darwin, Australia, 25th December, 1974, was a day of disaster. Christmas Day, 1974, will long be remembered by all Australians as the day of the greatest natural disaster ever to strike their country. By comparison with other countries, Australia has been relatively fortunate over the years. Volcanic eruptions are unknown, for Australia, has no active volcanoes. Earthquakes are insignificant and although floods are common in some parts of the country, they are very limited in extent. AustraliaÂ’s greatest problems, as far as Nature is concerned, have always been droughts and the bushfires that frequently occur in periods without rain.

For the people of Darwin, Australia, 25th December, 1974, was a day of disaster. Christmas Day, 1974, will long be remembered by all Australians as the day of the greatest natural disaster ever to strike their country.

By comparison with other countries, Australia has been relatively fortunate over the years. Volcanic eruptions are unknown, for Australia, has no active volcanoes. Earthquakes are insignificant and although floods are common in some parts of the country, they are very limited in extent. Australia’s greatest problems, as far as Nature is concerned, have always been droughts and the bushfires that frequently occur in periods without rain.

But on Christmas Day 1974, the city of Darwin, a harbor-town on the northern coast of Australia, was hit by the most destructive cyclone ever recorded in Australia. Although cyclones are not uncommon in the northern part of the country, they are usually more like heavy storms and rarely do any serious damage. In fact, on most occasions their full force is felt over the sea rather than over the land. Cyclone Tracy, however, was an exception, and it showed how powerless human beings are against the strength of nature.

On Christmas Eve, as the inhabitants of Darwin, like other Australians and like people in many other countries throughout the world, were making last-minute preparations for the celebration of Christmas the following day, warnings were issued by radio that a cyclone was approaching the city. No one, however, not even the men on duty at the Meteorological Office, guessed what was to come, for at that time the cyclone was well out to sea and was traveling at only 6 kilometers per hour. Cyclone warnings have always been normal in Darwin. Usually a cyclone means only very strong winds and heavy rain in this part of the world. So the people of Darwin told themselves that Christmas Day would probably not be bright and sunny. Most people stored away belongings that might fall if the wind increased in strength and tied down things that could be blown away.

Meanwhile, officials on duty at the Naval Base and the Australian Broadcasting Commission headquarters had also been keeping records of the cyclone, which was still approaching Darwin from the north-west. At first, it was expected that the cyclone would change direction when it reached Cox Peninsula, a piece of land to the west of the city but at midnight it became clear that the cyclone would strike the city directly from the sea.

The base of a steel electricity pole bent by cyclone Tracy in Darwin 1974

In the hours between 2 o’clock and 4 o’clock on Christmas morning, long before sunrise, the full violence of the cyclone hit the city. At one o’clock, the eye of the cyclone was 14 kilometers from Darwin, and was still moving at only 6 kilometers per hour. Soon afterwards, the wind began to howl and rain crushed down as people huddled in their homes listening to the radio warnings. Many moved into their bathrooms, which they were told were the safest places. The sound of breaking glass could be heard everywhere, as windows were shattered by the wind. The cracking and ripping of corrugated iron could be heard, for nearly every roof in Darwin was made of corrugated iron as a protection against heavy rain. Trees began to bend and soon many were completely uprooted. Electric power lines were torn down and scattered across road and gardens.

A lull in the wind and rain, as the eye of the cyclone passed over the city. But it was only a brief period of peace. People who have experienced the normal movement of cyclones understand what is known as “the back of the eye”. After the eye or centre of the cyclone passes, a second period of wind and rain, for worse than the first, occurs. It was this second period that did the heaviest damage to the city of Darwin. According to scientists, a certain phenomenon known as “explosive deepening” then began. The eye of the cyclone started to shrink rapidly, which caused an enormous increase in the strength of the wind. The whole power of the cyclone became concentrated in a zone only a few kilometers wide around the eye.

At the same time tornadoes developed around the edge of the eye of the cyclone. Usually, a cyclone is not accompanied by tornadoes. It was the tornadoes that lifted heavy objects like cars and hurled them amazing distances. In one case, a refrigerator was thrown up into a water-tower fifteen meters high. A cyclone, no matter how violent it may be, does not cause the upward movement of objects. So Darwin suffered a double misfortune because the cyclone was strengthened by tornadoes.

When the cyclone reached its peak during this second period, winds of more than 300 kilometers per hour passed over the city and suburbs of Darwin. By three o’clock in the morning communications with the rest of the country and the rest of the world were completely broken. In fact, it was only many hours later, when the rest of Australia was enjoying the peace of Christmas afternoon that Australians learned what had happened to their fellow-country-men in the north. The Australian Broadcasting Commission was completely off the air and all communications at Darwin Airport was destroyed.

Three house gilders twisted during tropical cyclone Tracy in Darwin 1974

By four-thirty, the worst was over. Cyclone Tracy moved away to the south-east, gradually losing strength. The rain continued, however, and as Christmas Day dawned the people of Darwin looked with disbelief at the ruins of their city.

The damage to the city was indeed unbelievable. There was no electricity, for all power lines had been brought down by the wind. There was no running water, for the water pipes had been torn from the ground and broken. There was no sewerage for these pipes also had been ripped up by the winds that had swept the city. It was impossible to leave the city by air, for the airport was littered with the wreckage of planes and all radar and other facilities were broken. Only the very heaviest and strongest buildings had withstood the cyclone, and many of these, like the Darwin Hospital, had lost their roof. Some areas were worse than others. The suburb of Nightcliff, close to the sea, was one of the worst affected districts. Approximately fifty people died either during the cyclone or shortly after, as a result of injuries. It is a miracle that the death rate was so low. Cars were found in swimming-pools and refrigerators on top of other buildings. Car windows were blown in by the force of the gale. In many places houses were torn to pieces, while in other places only the walls on one side were blown in.

The immediate problem the next day was the plight of the people. It was impossible to find fresh food in the city, and with no electricity and water at all, it was obvious that most of the people would have have to be evacuated. Many people whose cars were still in running condition began to leave the city, heading towards the south but Darwin is a very isolated city, and so it was necessary to move people by air. Late Christmas Day the greatest airlift of civilians in history began. In five days more than half the population of Darwin was transported to the southern and eastern cities by plane. With the help of United States Starlifter, lent by the U.S. Air Force and capable of carrying several hundred people each trip, approximately 25,000 out of the 45,000 residents of Darwin were shifted. Priority was given first to the sick and injured, and then to women and children. Most husbands and fathers remained behind to help clean up what was left of the city.

Within a couple of days the Australian Navy had moved several of its ships, carrying food, vehicles and emergency power generators, to Darwin. The Navy itself had lost of few vessels, which had sunk in Darwin Harbour, along with several fishing boats, when the cyclone first struck. The Army, too, sent men and equipment to the north.

The task of rebuilding Darwin, however, is not a shorter undertaking. The city had suffered very seriously in 1942, when the Japanese bombed it from the sea. However, it had been rebuilt into a pleasant city with wide streets and pretty gardens. Many of the houses were made of wood and were placed high off the ground on poles, in an attempt to make them cooler, for Darwin that has a tropical climate. This fact explains much of the damage done by the cyclone. The wooden houses could not withstand the strong winds. The fact says that they were on poles made it easy for the tornadoes to throw them to the ground. So now, city-planning experts are busy working on plans for a new city capable of resisting the strongest gales. House designers are thinking about the type of house most suited to a region where cyclone can occur. Scientists who have studied different aspects of water supplies and sewerage are planning a different pattern for their pipe-lines so that, in the event of another cyclone equal to or even stronger than Tracy, basic facilities will not be destroyed. The airport authorities are planning new installations that will not collapse before heavy winds.

One suggestion being considered is that every house should have a cyclone shelter, perhaps built from concrete blocks and beneath the ground, a little like the air-raid shelters constructed in times of war. Indeed, according to reporters who visited the city during the days immediately after the disaster, Darwin resembled nothing more than a city hit by an atomic bomb.

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Comments (3)
Sean

Hi I was born in Darwin and went through STC Tracy as a child. Our family was unscathed though we lost our house and all our posessions. It truly was a freak of a storm.

One correction though - you claim that most cyclones here are 'nothing more than heavy storms'. This is untrue and in fact we have had some of the most intense cyclones in the world here. A couple of years ago STC Monica passed close by with winds of 320km/hr and Darwin itself has been destroyed by cyclones 3 times during the 20th century. Our systems this close to the equator tend to be smaller in extent than the big sprawling Atlantic storms that can reach mid latitudes but size isnt everything, its the wind speed that counts. In fact Tracy held the record for many years as the smallest tropical cyclone ever.

Sean

Hi I was born in Darwin and went through STC Tracy as a child. Our family was unscathed though we lost our house and all our posessions. It truly was a freak of a storm.

One correction though - you claim that most cyclones here are 'nothing more than heavy storms'. This is untrue and in fact we have had some of the most intense cyclones in the world here. A couple of years ago STC Monica passed close by with winds of 320km/hr and Darwin itself has been destroyed by cyclones 3 times during the 20th century. Our systems this close to the equator tend to be smaller in extent than the big sprawling Atlantic storms that can reach mid latitudes but size isnt everything, its the wind speed that counts. In fact Tracy held the record for many years as the smallest tropical cyclone ever.

If the eye of the cyclone was 14km way at one o'clock and moving at 6 kph then how do you reconcile theat with dozens of reports (and my personal experience that the eye was passing over the southern suburns at between 1 and 2 AM.   In addition I have not heard of one first hand report of sewer pipes being ripped from the ground.  Yes toilets were blown away and pumping facilities were knocked out - but pipes pulled out of the ground! - I think not.  The point about the tornadoes and explosive deepening is one that is not emphasised enough in discussions around this topic and I congratulate you for including it.  Regarding the airlift, the inclusion of a reference to the USA Starlifter is a little deceptive in terms of evacuation significance - the US effort moved about 1,000 people over a period fo 9 days.  Indeed while Indonesia also contributed to the evacuation effort the majority of evacuees were moved by Australia's domestic commercial airline fleet.

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