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A talk given to the Central Highlands of Tasmania Amateur Radio Club by me, Kevin vk2ce,
on 3.585mhz on 8 November 2001.

On Xmas eve 1974 cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin.

For the benefit of my friends in southern latitudes I will provide a bit of background information. Darwin is situated right at the top of the Northern Territory and is the closest city to the equator that is populated by white people. In 1974 the population was around 38,000, mostly public servants. It’s reason for being has always been a mystery to me. I know it has defence responsibilities as there is an Army and a RAAF base there as well as RAN moorings. It is basically a public service city charged with the responsibility of running the Northern Territory but why it requires so many public servants to do this remains a mystery to me, anyway. The population now is well over 100,000 and growing fast. It has become a tourist attraction and by all accounts a very beautiful tropical city.

Darwin is unlike any other city in the world. It has 2 seasons, the wet from November to March and the dry from April to October. November is referred to as the suicide month because of the high number of suicides brought about by the oppressive heat coupled with intense humidity in the build up to the wet season. It does not actually start raining until December and then it buckets down. Half an hour after a storm it is practically bone dry again. It is definitely a man’s town. The women find living there extremely difficult particularly those with young children. A backyard pool is essential because swimming in the ocean is impossible because of the sea wasps which can be fatal. The temperature is around 34C all year round, the only change is the humidity which goes from bad to worse. Air conditioning does not work very well in the private home and the cost of running it is extremely high so ceiling fans are the life support system. Because of its proximity to the equator, the heat from the sun is intense. I tried walking to the office a couple of times but I was soaked with sweat by the time I got there and spent a very uncomfortable day afterwards. It is almost impossible to get drunk on beer as you perspire so freely that it doesn’t stay in your system long enough to have an effect. As a result the consumption of beer there is the highest per head of population in Australia.

In the 70’s in addition to the static residential population there was a large hippy population who used the city as a launching pad to Asia, Most of these people resided in communes on the beaches and their presence was unaccounted for. There were also people visiting the city on a stop-over to other places. The reason I mention this will become apparent shortly.

Cyclone Tracy almost completely devastated this city. The extent of the damage is something that should never have happened. The rebuilding of Darwin was also done in a way that maybe should never have happened. I have never told this story before and will probably never tell it again. I was at one stage going to write a book but I was bound by my obligations as a public servant at the time so I could not do so. When I left the public service some years later it was too late to write about it as it was very much past history. A journalist I worked with in Darwin, Roger East was writing a book about it but he decided to go to East Timor and got himself killed, so his book died with him. Anyway, back to the story.

In the 70’s if a public servant wanted to be appointed to a position in Darwin, he had to undergo a medical examination to determine whether he was fit for tropical duty. I was sitting in my office at the National Capital Development Commission in Canberra towards the end of February 1975 and my boss walked in and asked me what I was doing at the weekend. I said I was playing golf on Saturday and probably gardening on Sunday. He said "No you’re not, you are going to Darwin to get the Darwin Reconstruction Commission up and running".

Immediately after the cyclone a state of emergency was declared and General Alan Stretton was appointed by the Federal Government to take charge of the situation. At the same time legislation was put in place to establish an interim Reconstruction commission to organise shelter for those who were without housing. This included just about everyone so Stretton organised the evacuation of about 80% of the population and this exercise is another story in itself. What the government was afraid of was disease and the creation of a shanty town so all but key personnel were evacuated. There was also the cleanup and search for injured survivors or those who had not survived. The defence forces and police were mobilised from all over Australia to search through all the rubble and behind them came the front end loaders and trucks to take the debris to the northern swamp area.

Try and picture this scene, Xmas eve with refrigerators full of food, 34 degrees of heat and around 90% humidity. The smell and stench of rotting food after a few days drove a lot of the volunteer rescue workers back home quite smartly. The official death toll was 68 persons but as mentioned previously, there were a lot of people living there who were not recorded as being there so the true toll was certainly much higher.

The interim commission was headed by the chairman of the Queensland Electricity commission whose name escapes me. His PR man was Roger East who I mentioned earlier. In February the Govt. passed the Darwin Reconstruction Act which made the Commissioner of the NCDC the Chairman of the DRC with the power to use any of his NCDC staff to run the DRC. The DRC had a life of 5 years and was charged with duty of rebuilding Darwin to its pre-cyclone state with regard to building codes for known cyclone areas. It also had the job of providing temporary housing for those who remained behind. This was a daunting task and in hindsight was a path down which the Govt. should not have gone. It was a decision taken in a crisis and those sorts of decisions are not necessarily the correct ones.

The people of Darwin are different. They refer to southerners as blow-ins and treat them with disdain. The 2 departments who had the main responsibility for running the NT were the Dept of the Northern Territory and the Commonwealth Department of Works (the construction body). Both had the capability of rebuilding Darwin given the staff to do so but the Government wanted a statutory body without the red-tape confinements that departments were shackled with. I arrived there in early February with the Commissioner who introduced me to my 2 other work mates. A town planner from Canberra and a consulting engineer from Darwin.

I shall never forget that plane trip. We left Canberra at 7am on a Sunday morning. Stopped at Brisbane after changing planes at Sydney. Landed at Mt Isa for a half an hour and then onto Darwin. We landed at around 3.30 pm local time. I got to the door just in front of the Commissioner and was hit in the face with the hottest, most humid breeze I had ever felt. It was like stepping into a sauna. I said to the commissioner there is no way I am staying here, mate. He pushed me down the stairs with the comment that the airport was the hottest place in Darwin and told me not to be a woos. After settling into my room at the Travelodge, the town planner, David took me for a drive. The older pert of Darwin was pretty much intact but when we got to the Northern suburbs I could not believe my eyes. Debris from destroyed houses lay all over the place and all that was left of most of the houses were the stilts and flooring. Darwin houses were built on steel or concrete stilts with stairs on either side and a laundry in the centre on the ground floor. They were single story with fibro or weather board cladding and tin roofs. The damage was caused mainly by debris flying off one house onto the next and so on like a deck of cards so it was not unusual to see a house at the end of a street almost whole and the rest in various stages of destruction down to the other end of the street. Telegraph poles are made of steel because of termites. Most of these had been bent parallel to the ground. We walked around some of the debris and I saw mattresses, broken furniture, pictures in broken frames but the thing that really got to me was a little girls doll. I headed straight for the bar when we got back and had a couple of double scotches. It was an experience which had a profound affect on me and on which I will never forget. All the photos and videos can not do justice to the atmosphere that pervaded that scenery particularly the eerie silence.

The 4 of us worked well into the night planning how we were going to go about this task. We drew up an organization chart which showed the organization tree of the commission and the staff required to do the job. We needed a building, telephones and staff and also transportation in the form of motor vehicles. The DNT during the state of emergency had impounded everything and assumed ownership of just about anything that appeared unowned. I went to them and obtained a deserted newly constructed building and a couple of motor cars including a Range Rover which was very handy for trips into the northern suburbs which had not been completely cleared. The next day it became apparent that we were going to have big problems. The co-operation from the locals was zilch. We were blow-ins and should not be there. I was told it would take 3 months to get the phones put on.. We needed furniture like desks and chairs and filing cabinets. Sorry, mate they are impounded. A couple of quick calls to Canberra into the Ministers ear produced remarkable results. I tried to appoint staff from other departments and they promptly promoted them back again.

After 4 weeks of this I decided to fly home and see how my family was getting on in my absence. While I was there I renewed my acquaintance with a friend at the Commonwealth Audit Office and brought him up to date with all that had been going on. At that stage the Darwin audit office was non-existent so I cleared all our activities with Canberra.

The only accommodation for us southerners was the Darwin Travelodge which was about the only inhabitable commercial premises available. In addition to us, and us included quite a few seconded staff from NCDC at that stage, were the Ansett crews and a few remaining commonwealth coppers. One night I was having trouble sleeping so I got up and went for a drive around midnight. I drove up to the northern suburbs which had been completely destroyed and accidentally ran over a piece of iron which resulted in a puncture. I got out and changed the wheel. When I had finished I started to shiver and shake as I was the only living thing for miles around me. There was no breeze, no wildlife, no people, no leaves on the trees, nothing but complete silence. I was petrified. I have never experienced this complete isolation and silence and darkness.

Over the next couple of months we managed to get some staff organised and contracts let for temporary housing. The new building code was well advanced and things were looking a lot better despite all the frustrations. A Greek ship had arrived in the harbour to house people temporarily, it was called the Patrice. Not long after it arrived there were several stabbings and riots so they imposed a curfew on boarding and leaving. It became a real problem and kept the coppers quite busy.

In June I had a visit from a guy who was the local audit inspector. Yes they had set up office again and he was there to see what we had been doing. I told him we had cleared everything with Canberra but he said he couldn’t care less about that. Our first annual report to parliament was produced in August and of course there was a heavy qualification on the accounts from the Auditor-General. He questioned why we had stayed at the Travelodge at the taxpayers expense when we could have lived on the Patrice. There were all sorts of questions raised mainly by this guy who came to visit and who was hell bent on tearing the blow-ins apart. It nearly cost me my job and it did affect my future career with the NCDC so much so that I resigned a few years later as I had no future there.

Tracy not only devastated Darwin. Her antics affected the lives of many. People who lived through the cyclone ended up with mental problems, lost relatives, lost property and had to start all over again. A thing called the Darwin relief fund acquired a lot of money from people who donated to the cause. This money has never been publicly accounted for to my knowledge and a lot of it has never been distributed to those who were in need of it. The total devastation of Darwin should never have happened as the housing, which was 90% government built was substandard for a known cyclone prone city. The reason I say this is because during May the Darwin show was staged including the famous beer can regatta. The Dept of Works had an exhibit at the show which, among other things, explained to people how they could cyclone proof their house for $500. The kit consisted of nails and angle brackets which enable you to secure the floor to the stilts, the floor to the walls, the walls to the ceiling and also provided metal strips to secure the tin roof to the rafters. I asked the director of works why they didn’t do this when they built the houses in the first place. His comment was that they had to build X number of houses each year and they only had a limited budget. These houses were so flimsy that a person walking up the stairs made the needle on a record player jump off the record. I felt there was plenty of room here for legal action and made this suggestion to the Mayoress. The other reason was the complacency of the residents. They had been through cyclone warnings many times before and most of them fizzled out. It was Xmas eve and most were doing what everyone else around Australia does. celebrate. Warnings were issued over the radio, the TV but no-one was certain which way Tracy was going. People were advised to barricade their windows, park the car under the house and fill it with food and water. Take a battery operated trannie, torches. A few followed this advice but most didn’t until it was too late. One guy took a large bottle of whisky and a carton of cigarettes downstairs and settled into his laundry for a long night. He forgot to take matches.

The DRC was folded up after 3 years when NT got self-government. In that time they spent $300 million setting up the infrastructure for the new city and established design codes for construction work. There are many stories I could relate, some humorous, others tragic. Like a phoenix rising, Darwin is now a vibrant city with over 100,000 residents proving that the Australian will to survive and regenerate is a very real thing.

Apparently the DRC has been forgotten. In 1999 the Darwin amateur radio club using the call sign VI8TRACY ran a special event station to remember the 25th anniversary of the cyclone. I worked the operator and told him I used to work with the DRC. He said he had never heard of it and what was it.

In September 1975, 9 months after the cyclone, the Australian Women's Weekly ran a lengthy article about the situation in Darwin which illustrates what I said previously about crisis decisions. The DRC was hamstrung right from the start and it was not until local people took up senior positions in the organization that things started to get done. I will read some of the comments in the article.

Of 12,500 houses, all but a few hundred were destroyed or uninhabitable. There were 47,00 people there. The Prime Minister made a firm commitment that Darwin would be rebuilt but nobody spelled out what that meant precisely and nobody could estimate the cost. 5 days after Tracy the population was down to 10,000. By April it was over 30,000. What the people wanted over their heads was a roof, and all that went with it. Most of the wrecked houses had been built by the Dep't of Housing and Construction but some 60-70% were owned by the residents. Some owners and mortgagees assumed the DRC would rebuild as if the Government still owned them. The cost to the taxpayer would have been astronomical and the DRC had no such powers.

The biggest hold up was local objection to the new building code which was designed to prevent or minimise a reoccurrence of the damage. The main objection was the prohibition of construction in the tidal surge area, If Tracy had arrived on a high tide a lot of people would have drowned as well. The DRC produced its plan for the new city and invited public objections. They got 1200 and under heavy local pressure, yielded on 85 per cent. They kept modifying their strict building code, also under pressure, until they were nearly back to square one.

The DRC chairman summed up the situation in September 1975 when he said, "We’re bound to cop a lot of flak. We’re here and we’re obvious. It will go on until our program produces visible results and that’s happening in the northern suburbs. I warned last April that a lot of people would still be living in bad conditions in 3 years time. I’m not making excuses but we find we are not dealing with a normal community. They’re anxious and deprived and it’s hard to achieve a consensus. We can’t get skilled staff. They won’t come up here without their families and we’d have to house their families, and so it goes on. Those we’ve got are dedicated and diabolically overworked. Some won’t stay so there’s little continuity. Building contractors were in a recession and they were not prepared to take risks so far away so costs of rebuilding were high

One of the locals who was interviewed by the WW said: "People won’t face the reality of what has happened, that old Darwin’s finished. It’s my town and I love it and it was great while it lasted. But it was always a bulldust town. We aren’t pioneers and we never were. We’re a spoiled community, a city community. The Government reacted too generously in the first place and set up a "handout syndrome’. Nobody ever says ‘thankyou’. They say ‘it isn’t enough. To give some of them what they want, you’d need a Mandrake, not the DRC. People won’t admit that the DRC in record time, by international standards, came up with a detailed guideline plan. But 30 housewives have only to get together and shoot off a wire to Canberra and it all gets whittled down. Maybe the size of the town grew to wasn’t justified. What have we produced? Bureaucrats."

Darwin is now a vibrant, thriving community of over 100,000. Let's hope it stays that way.

Click here for some pictures.

The above comments reflect my personal experiences in Darwin and the views put forward are also mine. There is nothing official about either. It is a shame that Rodger East did not live long enough to complete his book about decisions taken in crisis, it woild have made interesting reading. Rodger was a freelance journalist who was the DRC public relations officer until he went to East Timor to follow a story there. He and several of his peers never returned.

Click here for photos of Darwin

Original material copyright 2003 K&P Mulcahy.