Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 16, 2014

Warning, The Story of Cyclone Tracy (2014), by Sophie Cunningham

Warning (Cyclone Tracy)I was alone in the house last Saturday when I began reading Sophie Cunningham’s Warning, The Story of Cyclone Tracy, and a windstorm was brewing.  It was gusting up to almost 60km/h, which is 7 on the Beaufort scale, almost a gale.  I went outside and did the usual things that I do when the weather seems ominous, stacking outdoor chairs away and tucking the cast-iron table upside-down under the shrubs at the back of the house.  I was very conscious that short of evacuating the city altogether, nothing much the residents of Darwin could have done would have made any difference when in 1974 the city was hit by a cyclone packing 217 km/h before the anemometer ceased functioning.  You only have to look at this video to see the destruction.

In the prologue to Warning, the facts are presented without emotion:

These are the bare bones of it: around midnight on Christmas Eve, 1974, a cyclone hit Darwin.  Around seventy-one people died, hundreds more were injured and seventy per cent of the homes of Darwin’s 47,000 inhabitants were laid waste.  That left only five hundred residences habitable out of some twelve thousand.  Every single public building was destroyed or seriously damaged. While the loss of life was limited, the material damage was unparalleled.  The population of Darwin endured winds that some believe reached speeds of three hundred kilometres per hour.  In the week after Tracy, close to thirty thousand people were airlifted out of the ruined town in what remains Australia’s largest evacuation effort.  Many of them never returned.  The damage bill was estimated at between 800 million and 1.5 billion dollars, which is the equivalent of 6.1 billion today.  This, set against the town’s relatively small population means it still ranks as one of the world’s most costly disasters.

The damage was contained, comprehensive and explicitly material.  Tracy wiped out a city.  (p. 7)

But in the ensuing pages, Sophie Cunningham brings these facts to life.  She reviews events with a compelling mixture of oral history and official archives. Acknowledging from the outset that memory is fallible, she has nonetheless made the facts more real with the reminisces of people who were there.  Some of the names are familiar to those of us down south who reacted to the news with a mixture of horror and compassion.  We read about Major General Alan Stretton jetting in to manage the emergency relief program; on TV we saw assorted politicians walking through the rubble in stunned dismay, and we caught vox pops of the evacuees as they staggered onto the tarmac of airports around the country.  But most of the testimonies in Warning are the vivid voices of ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary event.  These were people confronted by an unimaginable force of nature with only their bodies to protect themselves and their children.  Everything else: roofs, furniture, walls, birds, trees, gardens, meaning.  All that disappeared.  (p.9)

At its worst, parents were not able to protect their children at all.

Ken Frey describes a colleague’s experience:

One of our architects, who had three children, went into the bathroom, and the two youngest they put into the bath itself, thinking it was fairly safe.  And the mother, I think, was against one wall with her husband.  And one of the children was hanging onto the hand basin when the wall went out; the bath went with the wall, and so did the hand basin.  So all three children went out and the two parents were left in there …. (p. 33)

What I did not know until I read this book was that the evacuees were packed into military planes like sardines, with no toilet facilities.  I did not know that families were separated because in the chaos, that people were simply bundled onto planes without a manifest.  Indigenous people for whom connection to land is a spiritual necessity were packed off to places that were as foreign to them as China would be to me, and they were not necessarily made welcome.  I did not realise that the urgency to evacuate was because there just wasn’t any food, or water, to sustain the population in Darwin.  There were no communications.  For quite some time, the people of Darwin did not know if the rest of Australia had heard about their plight.

Of course some decisions were hasty, ill-conceived and poorly executed. Of course there were competing egos and hissy-fits amongst the personnel who took charge and then had to relinquish power.  Of course there was the usual blame game.  But the miracle Cunningham documents is just how well people somehow coped, how much cooperation there was and how little looting there was.  (And is it looting, if in extremis you take something needed for survival?)

1974 doesn’t seem like such a very long time ago, yet the authorities’ attitudes to women were closer to those of the 19th century than our own.  Cunningham points out that it was never even contemplated that women might contribute anything to the relief effort.  Priority for evacuation was given to the sick, injured and pregnant, then women and children, and elderly couples, married couples and single people after that.  By December 31st, there was only 5-10% of Darwin’s women left in town.   Not all of them had wanted to go.

As if the trauma of the cyclone were not enough, separation was devastating:

When Howard Truran was interviewed about his experience fourteen years after the event he still remembers that, although he wanted his wife and kids evacuated because he was so worried for them, the experience was extremely traumatic.

I wanted to get ’em out because everything was new to us; we didn’t know what was happening.  And then there was rumours that there was typhoid around, and [there was] no power, no sewerage, no nothing…. [Getting them on the bus] was very heart wrenching.  Therese was very upset and I was upset, and the kids.  You just piled them on the bus; you didn’t know when you were going to see them again: [there was] all this devastation around, and women crying and people on the bus and everybody [was] upset, and then just see the bus disappear. (p. 104)

Warning, however, is not just the story of the people who endured the catastrophe.  Cunningham unpacks the decision-making processes, analyses the reconstruction effort and notes the resemblances with other recent natural disasters.  Explaining her motivation for writing this book, she reminds the reader that the extent and severity of natural disasters is increasing due to climate change:

…the human race is transforming the land, the seas and the weather.  There are signs of that all around us, and in a country already tended to extremes of drought, flood and bushfire we are now facing a world where there will be more calamities more often and larger numbers of us will be affected.  (p. 11)

I hope some of the ostriches in  Canberra pick up a copy of this to read on their flights to and fro…

Author: Sophie Cunningham
Title: Warning, The Story of Cyclone Tracy
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922079367
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


Fishpond: Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy


  1. I can’t imagine how harrowing been caught up in a disaster like this could be


    • Oh, I agree, Stu. It’s the scale of it that’s so frightening, and even though I think most places have disaster planning in place, if everything gets destroyed, well, you wouldn’t know where to begin…


  2. My dear friends – an engineer and his wife with a [then] young family – were caught in Cyclone Tracy and they paint extraordinary pictures with their reminiscences. One that often stays with me is how they felt, these two recently-arrived poms with their two tiny daughters, upon seeing the devastation of their home. Almost everything was taken up by the wind and lashed into pieces many miles away but, there, upturned in amongst the rubble, was one delicate sherry glass they had brought with them from the mother land, a precious wedding gift of fine crystal, sitting proudly on its stem, completely unscathed. I imagine it like a miniature trophy, a monument to their survival. They now live in Tasmania which, short of returning to England, is about as opposite to Darwin as you can get.
    I have been inside a little room in a Darwin museum where, in pitch black, you can hear the sound of Tracey. That little piece of history gives a tiny insight into the terror.
    Sounds like a book worth reading.


    • Hi Karenlee, what a beautiful story:) It is amazing the odd little things that survive… I helped to clean up a house that had been destroyed by fire, and there were little pieces of porcelain from a wedding present dinner service that we were able to carefully clean, yes, a small symbols of survival.


  3. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  4. I was going to comment on the little room in the magnificent Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery in which you can hear the sounds of Tracey but I see Karen Lee has beaten me to it. It’s one of the most effective museum displays I’ve ever seen/experienced. The sound of the wind and of things crashing around is quite terrifying. This museum is a real treasure – wonderful boat hall, great Tracey exhibit, gorgeous cafe overlooking the beach, to name just a few of its delights. Anyhow, getting back on track, this book sounds worth reading …


    • It would be on my list of places to visit if I ever decide to venture up north, it’s the climate that defeats me…
      But my discovery of the museum online and Sophie Cunningham’s thoughts about the coming 40th anniversary and possible commemorations reminded me strongly of Andrea Goldsmith’s The Memory Trap. By the sound of it the Tracy museum would be what she called an ‘experiential’ memorial, and I wonder how people who lived through it view this concept?


      • Yes good question … Probably varied, like most things. As for climate I’d say Darwin in July is way more comfortable than Singapore. Darwin has the same average maximum as Singapore, ie around 30.5°C but Singapore’s humidity is around 83% and Darwin’s 38%. That makes a huge difference in comfort, to me, anyhow … Sure we’ve felt hot in the Top End in July but I’ve never dreaded going out the way I did in Singapore. It’s that sense of having a shower and knowing that within an hour or so the freshness will be gone and your clothes sticking to you. I hated that.


        • Oh, me too. Tropical climates are not for me. But I find Sydney’s humidity hard to bear, and the Gold Coast’s. It’s my English genes!


          • I don’t like humidity either — now Canberra, we are definitely NOT humid here! I am an inland or mediterranean girl I’ve worked out.


    • Oh yes, Sue, that café overlooking the beach! I had forgotten about it. It was wonderful.


      • Yes, I think it’s called Cornucopia. It’s gorgeous isn’t it – the blue green sea, the pandanus.


  5. […] Cunningham, the Melbourne author of Geography, Bird, Melbourne (City South Series, on my TBR) and Warning: the Story of Cyclone Tracy. She’s a former publisher and editor, she contributes to literary journals like Meanjin, she […]


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