Cyclone Tracy

For the Australian miniseries, see Cyclone Tracy (mini-series).
Cyclone Tracy
Category 4 severe tropical cyclone (Aus scale)
Category 3 (Saffir–Simpson scale)

Cyclone Tracy near Darwin landfall
Formed 21 December 1974 (1974-12-21)
Dissipated 26 December 1974 (1974-12-26)
Highest winds 10-minute sustained: 175 km/h (110 mph)
1-minute sustained: 205 km/h (125 mph)
Gusts: 240 km/h (150 mph)
Lowest pressure 950 hPa (mbar); 28.05 inHg
Fatalities 71
Damage $800 million (1974 USD)
Areas affected Tiwi Islands, Darwin, Northern Territory
Part of the 1974–75 Australian region cyclone season

Cyclone Tracy was a tropical cyclone that from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day, 1974, devastated the city of Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. It is the most compact cyclone or equivalent-strength hurricane on record in the Australian basin, with gale-force winds extending only 48 kilometres (30 mi) from the centre and was the most compact system worldwide until 2008 when Tropical Storm Marco of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season broke the record, with gale-force winds extending only 19 kilometres (12 mi) from the centre.[1][2] After forming over the Arafura Sea, the storm moved southwards and affected the city with Category 4 winds on the Australian cyclone intensity scale, while there is evidence to suggest that it had reached Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale when it made landfall.[3]

Tracy killed 71 people, caused A$837 million in damage (1974 dollars), or approximately A$4.45 billion (2014 dollars). It destroyed more than 70 percent of Darwin's buildings, including 80 percent of houses.[4][5] Tracy left more than 41,000 out of the 47,000 inhabitants of the city homeless prior to landfall and required the evacuation of over 30,000 people.[6] Most of Darwin's population was evacuated to Adelaide, Whyalla, Alice Springs and Sydney, and many never returned to the city. After the storm passed, the city was rebuilt using more modern materials and updated building techniques. Bruce Stannard of The Age stated that Cyclone Tracy was a "disaster of the first magnitude ... without parallel in Australia's history."[7]

Meteorological history

Map plotting the track and intensity of the storm according to the Saffir–Simpson hurricane wind scale

On 20 December 1974, the United States' ESSA-8 environmental satellite recorded a large cloud mass centred over the Arafura Sea about 370 kilometres (230 mi) northeast of Darwin. This disturbance was tracked by the Darwin Weather Bureau's regional director Ray Wilkie, and by senior meteorologist Geoff Crane. On 21 December 1974, the ESSA-8 satellite showed evidence of a newly formed circular centre near latitude 8° south and longitude 135° east.[8] Crane - the meteorological duty officer at the time - issued the initial tropical cyclone alert describing the storm as a tropical low that could develop into a tropical cyclone.

Later in the evening, the Darwin meteorological office received an infrared satellite image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's satellite, NOAA-4, showing that the low pressure had developed further and that spiralling clouds could be observed. The storm was officially pronounced a tropical cyclone at around 10 p.m. on 21 December, when it was around 200 kilometres (120 mi) to the north-northeast of Cape Don (700 km or 435 mi northeast of Darwin).[9] Cyclone Tracy was first observed on the Darwin radar on the morning of 22 December.[10] Over the next few days, the cyclone moved in a southwesterly direction, passing north of Darwin on 22 December. A broadcast on ABC Radio that day stated that Cyclone Tracy posed no immediate threat to Darwin. However, early in the morning of 24 December, Tracy rounded Cape Fourcroy on the western tip of Bathurst Island, and moved in a southeasterly direction, straight towards Darwin.[11] The bureau's weather station at Cape Fourcroy measured a mean wind speed of 120 kilometres per hour (75 mph) at 9 a.m that morning.[12]

By late afternoon on 24 December, the sky over the city was heavily overcast, with low clouds, and was experiencing strong rain.[13] Wind gusts increased in strength; between 10 p.m (local time) and midnight, the damage became serious, and residents began to realise that the cyclone would not just pass by the city, but rather over it. On 25 December at around 3:30 a.m, Tracy's centre crossed the coast near Fannie Bay.[10] The highest recorded wind gust from the cyclone was 217 kilometres per hour (135 mph), which was recorded around 3:05 a.m at Darwin Airport.[10] The anemometer (wind speed instrument) failed at around 3:10 a.m, with the wind vane (wind direction) destroyed after the cyclone's eye.[10] The Bureau of Meteorology's official estimates suggested that Tracy's gusts had reached 240 km/h (150 mph).[14] The lowest air pressure reading during Tracy was 950 hectopascals (28 inHg), which was taken at around 4 a.m, by a Bureau staff member at Darwin Airport.[10] This was recorded during the eye of the cyclone.[10] From around 6:30 a.m, the winds began to ease, with the rainfall ceasing at around 8:30 a.m.[10]

The relative sizes of the United States, Cyclone Tracy and Typhoon Tip, the smallest and largest Pacific tropical storms recorded, respectively


Darwin had been severely battered by cyclones before; in January 1897 and again in March 1937.[15] However, in the 20 years leading up to Cyclone Tracy, the city had undergone a period of rapid expansion. E.P. Milliken estimated that on the eve of the cyclone there were 43,500 people living in 12,000 dwellings in the Darwin area. Though building standards required that some attention be given to the possibility of cyclones, most buildings were not capable of withstanding the force of a cyclone's direct hit.

On the day of the cyclone, most residents of Darwin believed that the cyclone would not cause any damage to the city. Cyclone Selma had been predicted to hit Darwin earlier in the month, but it instead went north and dissipated without affecting Darwin in any way. As a result, Cyclone Tracy took most Darwin residents by surprise. Despite several warnings the people of Darwin did not evacuate or prepare for the cyclone. Many residents continued to prepare for Christmas, and many attended Christmas parties, despite the increasing winds and heavy rain. Journalist Bill Bunbury interviewed the residents of Darwin some time later and recorded the experiences of the survivors of the cyclone in his book Cyclone Tracy, picking up the pieces.[16] Resident Dawn Lawrie, a 1971 independent candidate for the electorate of Nightcliff, told 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)[16]

Another resident, Barbara Langkrens, said:

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)[16]


Devastation brought by Cyclone Tracy upon the Northern Territory city of Darwin.
Courtesy – National Archives of Australia A6135, K29/1/75/16
Houses after the destruction caused by Tracy
House in Nakara, Northern suburbs, after Tracy
HMAS Arrow beached in Francis Bay March 1975
The base of a steel electricity pole bent by Tracy
Memorial at Casuarina High School assembled from three house girders twisted by Cyclone Tracy

Cyclone Tracy killed 71 people,[4] 49 of whom were on land and 22 at sea. Two RAN sailors died when HMAS Arrow, an Attack-class patrol boat, sank at Stokes Hill Wharf.[17] The storm also caused the substantial destruction of the city of Darwin. At Darwin Airport, thirty-one aircraft were destroyed and another twenty-five badly damaged.[18] The initial estimate put the reported death toll at 65, but it was revised upwards in March 2005, when the Northern Territory Coroner proclaimed that those who still remained listed as missing had "perished at sea".[4][6]

Several factors delayed the dissemination of the news of the cyclone's impact. The destruction of transportation infrastructure and the distance between Darwin and the rest of the Australian population played a role, as did the fact the storm made landfall on Christmas Day and most media outlets had only a skeleton crew rostered on at best. Most Australians were not aware of the cyclone until late in the afternoon. Dick Muddimer, a reporter for the local ABC station, 5DR, was able to travel through the wreckage to local television station NTD and had the ABC station in Mount Isa, Queensland notify ABC headquarters in Sydney that Darwin had been hit by a cyclone.[19]

In order to provide the initial emergency response, a committee was created. The committee, composed of several high-level public servants and police, stated that, "Darwin had, for the time being, ceased to exist as a city". Gough Whitlam, the Australian Prime Minister, was touring Syracuse, Sicily at the time and flew to Darwin upon hearing of the disaster. Additionally, the Australian government began a mass evacuation by road and air; all of the Defence Force personnel throughout Australia, along with the entire Royal Australian Air Force's fleet of transport planes, were recalled from holiday leave and deployed to evacuate civilians from Darwin, as well as to bring essential relief supplies to the area. Thirteen ships of the Royal Australian Navy were used to transport supplies to the area as part of Operation Navy Help Darwin; the largest humanitarian or disaster relief operation ever performed by the Navy.[20]

Health and essential services crisis

As soon as the worst of the storm had passed, Darwin faced several immediate health crises. On Christmas Day, the Darwin Hospital treated well over five hundred patients, with 112 of these being admitted into the hospital, and both of the facility's operating theatres being utilised. The first casualties did not arrive till 7 a.m. because of high winds and severe road conditions in and around the Darwin area. Operating continued throughout the night and into the early morning. Local teams worked without relief until the arrival of a surgical team from Canberra late that day. Those who were considered unable to return to work within two weeks were evacuated by air to safer locations.

All official communications out of Darwin were no longer operational. The antennas at the OTC Coastal Radio Service station (callsign VID) were destroyed during the storm. Station manager Bob Hooper, who was an amateur radio operator, helped to establish communications using his own amateur radio equipment, By 10 a.m. Gary Gibson another amateur operator was able to establish a station at the Darwin Community College, within a short period of time a network of stations was established across the country. This network, coordinated by Melbourne D24 police, provided message services to the cities of Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Townsville, Brisbane, Adelaide, Alice Springs,Gove, Mt Isa, Cairns, Rockhampton, MacKay, Lismore, and Cooma.[21] By 10:40 a.m. VID operators had established VID2 on board the MV Nyanda in Darwin Harbour, and then for five days official communications traffic in and out of Darwin was handled via continuous wave radio (Morse code). The only local radio station that wasn't completely disabled was the ABC's 5DR; for the next two days, it was Darwin's only link to the outside world.[19]

Those who remained in Darwin faced the threat of several diseases due to much of the city being without water, electricity or basic sanitation. An initial response was to vaccinate residents for typhoid and cholera. Approximately 30,000 people were homeless, and were forced to seek shelter in several makeshift housing and emergency centres that lacked proper hygienic conditions. Volunteers came in from across the country to assist with the emergency relief efforts. Trench latrines were dug; water supplies delivered by tankers, and mass immunisation programs begun. The army was given the task of searching houses for the dead bodies of people and animals, as well as locating other health risks; for example, cleaning out rotting contents from fridges and freezers across the city. This was completed within a week. Houses which had been 'searched and cleared' had S&C painted on an external wall. The city itself was sprayed with malathion, in order to control mosquitoes and other similar pests.

Attempts to reconnect the essential services to the city began on Christmas Day. Local officers from the Commonwealth Department of Housing and Construction began clearing debris and working to restore power. They sealed off damaged water hydrants and activated pumps to reactivate the city's water and sewerage systems.

Evacuation and the public response

Major-General Alan Stretton, Director-General of the Natural Disasters Organisation,[11] and the Commonwealth Minister for the Northern Territory, Rex Patterson, arrived at Darwin Airport late on Christmas Day and took charge of the relief efforts. After an assessment of the situation and meetings with the Department of the Northern Territory and the relevant minister, it was concluded that Darwin's population needed to be reduced to a "safe level" of 10,500 people. This decision was made on the advice of Dr. Charles Gurd, the Director of Health in the Northern Territory. Around 10,000 people left Darwin and the surrounding area within the first two days, but the rate of departures then began to slow down. The government then gave support to his position, offering full reimbursement of personal costs, as long as the evacuation took place.

The population was evacuated by air and ground; because of communications difficulties with Darwin airport, landing was limited to one plane every ninety minutes. At major airports, teams of federal and territory department officials as well as Salvation Army and Red Cross workers met refugees, with the Red Cross taking responsibility for keeping track of the names and temporary addresses of the refugees. Evacuations were prioritised according to need; women, children, and the elderly and sick were evacuated first. There were reports of men dressing up as women to escape with the early evacuations. Between 26 and 31 December, a total of 35,362 people were evacuated from Darwin.[6][18] 25,628 of those were evacuated by air, the remainder by road.[6][18] By 31 December, only 10,638 people (mostly men who were required to help clean up the city) remained in Darwin. Stretton also regulated access to the city by means of a permit system. Permits were only issued to those who were involved in either the relief or reconstruction efforts, and were used to prevent the early return of those who were evacuated.

Upon receiving news of the damage, several community groups across Australia began fundraising and relief efforts to assist the survivors. Major reception centres were set up in cities such as Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs. Several of the small towns along the Stuart Highway made efforts to assist people who were fleeing by road, supplying them with food, fuel, rest and mechanical aid. At Adelaide River, the small local population provided hot meals to the refugees who stopped there. Approximately twenty-four hours after the storm hit Darwin, the population of Alice Springs had raised over $105,000 to assist the victims of Tracy.[22] In Melbourne at the Boxing Day Test cricket match between Australia and England, members of both teams moved around the boundaries carrying buckets which the crowd threw cash into for the relief funds. Darwin families were also given priority on public housing waiting lists. On 31 December 1974, Stretton recommended that full civilian control should resume in Darwin, and handed over control of the city to its elected officials.


Reconstruction and effects on Darwin

In February 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announced the creation of the Darwin Reconstruction Commission, which was given the task of rebuilding the city "within five years", focusing primarily on building houses.[23] The Commission was headed by Tony Powell.[24] The damage to the city was so severe that some advocated moving the entire city. However, the government insisted that it be rebuilt in the same location. By May 1975, Darwin's population had recovered somewhat, with 30,000 residing in the city. Temporary housing, caravans, hotels and an ocean liner, MV Patris, were used to house people, as reconstruction of permanent housing had not yet begun by September that year. Ella Stack became Mayor of Darwin in May 1975 and was heavily involved in its reconstruction.

However, by the following April, and after receiving criticism for the slow speed of reconstruction, the Commission had built 3,000 new homes in the nearly destroyed northern suburbs, and completed repairs to those that had survived the storm. Several new building codes were drawn up, trying to achieve the competing goals of the speedy recovery of the area and ensuring that there would be no repeat of the damage that Darwin took in 1974. By 1978, much of the city had recovered and was able to house almost the same number of people as it had before the cyclone hit. However, by the 1980s, as many as sixty percent of Darwin's 1974 population had left, never to return. In the years that followed, Darwin was almost entirely rebuilt and now shows almost no resemblance to the Darwin of December 1974.

Although a Legislative Assembly had been set up earlier in the year, the Northern Territory had only minimal self-government, with a federal minister being responsible for the Territory from Canberra. However, the cyclone and subsequent responses highlighted several problems with the way the regional government was set up. This led Malcolm Fraser, Whitlam's successor as Prime Minister, to give self-government to the Territory in 1978.

Many of the government records associated with Cyclone Tracy became publicly available on 1 January 2005 under the 30 year rule.

Arguably, the most famous work that Cyclone Tracy has inspired is the song "Santa Never made it into Darwin" composed by Bill Cate and performed by Bill (Cate) and Boyd (Robinson) in 1975 to raise money for the relief and reconstruction efforts.[25][26] Subsequently the song became so well known that in 1983 Hoodoo Gurus released "Tojo", a song comparing the Japanese bombing of Darwin under the command of Hideki Tojo during World War II to the damage done by Cyclone Tracy. The much feared Japanese invasion never happened, but the cyclone was virtually ignored and ended up destroying the city.[27]

In 1986, the Nine Network and PBL created Cyclone Tracy, a period drama mini-series based on the events during the cyclone. Michael Fisher, Ted Roberts and Leon Saunders wrote the series, and it starred Chris Haywood and Tracy Mann, who played the lead characters of Steve and Connie.[28] The mini-series was released on DVD by Umbrella Entertainment in December 2005. The DVD is compatible with all region codes and includes special features such as newsreel footage of the devastation and a documentary titled On A Wind And A Prayer.[29]

See also


  1. "FAQ : HURRICANES, TYPHOONS, AND TROPICAL CYCLONES". Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 29 May 2009. Retrieved 29 May 2009.
  2. "Tropical Cyclone Structure". JetStream. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 19 October 2005. Retrieved 24 March 2006.
  3. "International Best Track Archive for Climate Stewardship (HURDAT format)". National Climatic Data Center. Retrieved 29 December 2008.
  4. 1 2 3 "NT coroner hands down finding on Cyclone Tracy deaths". ABC news. 18 March 2005. Retrieved 24 March 2006.
  5. "Tropical cyclone extremes". Bureau of Meteorology. Retrieved 19 July 2015.
  6. 1 2 3 4 "Event – Cyclone Tracy". Attorney-General’s Department Disasters Database. Australian Emergency Management Institute. Retrieved 3 December 2011.
  7. Stannard, Bruce (28 December 1974). "Mr. Whitlam on the spot". The Age. Retrieved 30 December 2011.
  8. "Meteorological Cyclones Information — Countdown to the impact of Cyclone Tracey". Northern Territory Library. Retrieved 11 July 2006.
  9. "Meteorological Cyclones Information — Warnings issued for Cyclone Tracey". Northern Territory Library. Retrieved 11 July 2006.
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "Report on Cyclone Tracy December 1974" (PDF). Bureau of Meteorology. Retrieved 29 November 2011.
  11. 1 2 "Fact Sheet 176 – Cyclone Tracy, Darwin". National Archives of Australia. Archived from the original on 12 February 2005. Retrieved 23 November 2011.
  12. Murphy, Kevin. "Big Blow up North" (PDF). University Planning Authority. p. 61. Retrieved 23 November 2011.
  13. "Northern Territory Library – Cyclone Tracy Exhibition". Northern Territory Government. Retrieved 30 November 2011.
  14. "Tropical Cyclone Tracy". Bureau of Meteorology. Archived from the original on 14 February 2009. Retrieved 4 December 2011.
  15. "Previous cyclones in Darwin — Cyclone Tracey". Northern Territory Library. Retrieved 11 July 2006.
  16. 1 2 3 Bunbury, Bill (1994). Cyclone Tracy, picking up the pieces. Fremantle, Western Australia:: Fremantle Arts Centre Press. ISBN 1-86368-112-4.
  17. "Defence:Commemoration Services". Parliament of Australia Hansard. 10 February 2005. Retrieved 18 July 2011.
  18. 1 2 3 Murphy, Kevin. "Big Blow up North" (PDF). University Planning Authority. Retrieved 4 December 2011.
  19. 1 2 History of 105.7 ABC Darwin from ABC Online
  20. "Disaster Relief — Cyclone Tracy and Tasman Bridge". Semaphore. Sea Power Centre. Retrieved 6 February 2009.
  21. Electronics Australia magazine March 1975
  22. "Cyclone Tracy hits Darwin". Australian Geographic. Retrieved 5 March 2015.
  23. Juddery, Bruce (9 May 1975). "Reconstruction Commission: Doubt and disillusion grows in Darwin". The Canberra Times. p. 2.
  24. Jones, Alan (17 February 2009). "The bushfire recovery". Macquarie Media Network. 2GB. Retrieved 5 May 2009.
  25. "Santa never made it, but song to help Darwin". The Age. 1 January 1975. p. 3. Retrieved 7 July 2011.
  26. Bill Cate. "Santa Never Made it into Darwin". Archived from the original on 6 July 2011. Retrieved 24 March 2006.
  27. Faulkner, Dave (June 2000). "Pop and punishment". juliat. Archived from the original on 8 August 2007. Retrieved 29 August 2012.
  28. "Cyclone Tracy (TV mini-series 1986)". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 9 September 2012.
  29. "Umbrella Entertainment". Retrieved 19 July 2013.


  • Bunbury, Bill (1994). Cyclone Tracy: Picking up the Pieces. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press. ISBN 1-86368-112-4. 
  • Mckay, Gary (2004). Tracy: The storm that wiped out Darwin on Christmas Day 1974. Crows Nest, Sydney: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1-86508-558-8. 
  • Milliken, E. P. (April 1984). People Who Experienced Darwin Cyclone Tracy: Human Responses in Report on Proceedings of a Research Workshop on Human Behaviour in Australia. National Disasters Organisation, Australian Department of Defence. 
  • Stretton, Alan (1976). The Furious Days: The Relief of Darwin. Sydney: Willams Collins. ISBN 0-00-211448-8. 
  • "Mr. Whitlam on the spot.". The Age. 28 December 1974. pp. 9, 3 – 5. 
  • Olds, Margaret (Managing); Chan, Gabrielle (Associate); et al., eds. (1999). Australia Through Time (7th ed.). Sydney: Random House Publications. p. 441. ISBN 0-09-183815-0. 
  • Sea Power Centre — Australia, Royal Australian Navy (December 2004). "SEMAPHORE Issue 14 (occasional series)". Newsletter of the Sea Power Centre — Australia that deals with the Navy's response to Cyclone Tracy. 
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