SOPHIE CUNNINGHAM Warning: The story of Cyclone Tracy. Reviewed by Kathie Rea
What happened to Darwin, and the response to it, sends a warning as we prepare for more extreme weather events.
This Christmas Eve marks 40 years since Cyclone Tracy flattened the city of Darwin. Christmas decorations and dazed half-naked people amid the ruins of their homes are among the cruel images that haunted Australia on holiday.
For those who survived winds of up to 300 kilometres an hour, the days of emergency through to New Year’s Eve and the grind of reconstruction, the cyclone is a life marker. There is before and after the cyclone. Tracy doesn’t need to be named.
The death toll (officially 66) continues to surprise, given the vulnerability of so many of Darwin’s 47 000 residents in buildings that rattled and lifted and blew apart. While some criticism may be justified – of complacency on the part of residents and incompetence on the part of authorities – the low toll offers proof of the pluck, ingenuity and staggering resilience of ordinary people on the night. Novelist Sophie Cunningham builds an all-encompassing scene:
Shards of broken glass swirled around rooms as if in a giant blender. Some people couldn’t breathe, the wind was so ferocious. Petrol was sucked out of petrol tanks and air out of car tyres. Houses rocked like boats at sea. People sheltering in cars were picked up into the air, blown a few hundred metres and then dumped down again … One woman was blown out of the house with her five-month-old son in her arms. They landed uninjured but the baby was dangerously cold and instinct drove the mother to lick him, much as a cat would, in an effort to keep him warm … Thousands of sheets of corrugated iron scraped and scratched along the ground, sounding like millions of fingernails running down a blackboard.
Forty years on, and Darwin City Council has completed its annual clean-up to empty back yards of the everyday debris that could become missiles in high winds. A media blitz on cyclone preparedness has complemented the stocking of battery-powered radios and tinned food. Meanwhile, oddly, the NT Government has chosen this moment to sell its Territory Insurance Office, the underwriter of Darwin for decades.
In the lead-up to Christmas Eve 2014, a series of small events will honour the dead, and the living. And those of us with roots in this town but who came after Tracy will hush to hear survivors’ stories. It’s a truism that the survivors don’t want to talk about the cyclone, but very many have wanted their story on the record.
Cunningham has drawn deeply on the treasure trove of oral histories in the Northern Territory Archives. She threads individual stories with media and official reports to drive a riveting narrative of the cyclone, the recovery and rebuild. Along the way she picks up issues contentious at the time, such as civilian versus military authority, attitudes to looting and the shooting of wandering dogs. Controversy was inevitable as authority figures made quick decisions without consultation because consultation was not possible.
Actions and reactions in the aftermath of the cyclone echo through to today. Not surprisingly, questions of city planning and building loom large: open-air homes to encourage the free-flow of breezes versus concrete bunkers pinned to the ground; building in the sea’s surge zone; heritage protection. These issues continue to be argued in the language of 1975. But back then, modern civic pride was rather new in the frontier town.
Politics changed too. The days after the cyclone were a high point in the career of Acting Prime Minister Jim Cairns, who arrived on Boxing Day. Whitlam, who was overseas and returned for only a few days, lost standing. But they too were swept away and it was Malcolm Fraser’s government that reached agreement on Territory self-government by 1978. Interviewed by Cunningham, Fraser saw no link with the cyclone aftermath, saying the time had come, but Territory figures talk of a strengthening of mind that was matched by a greater identification with the town on the part of residents
All of which may sound a little dry – which this book is not. Cunningham provides enough grist for the mill of a good argument and then returns to the personal stories, which are always engaging and often moving.
For Cunningham it was the plain, unemotional police reports that first brought home the experience of that terrifying night. Detective Sergeant Thomas Baker reported:
‘On opening the bathroom door, I saw that the roof was off that part of the house and when I opened the door the ceiling of the room also disappeared; we then went to the toilet which was next door to the bathroom and as I opened the door, I saw the outside wall of the toilet disappear; I then went to the main bedroom of the house and saw that the outside wall had disappeared and that the side walls of the room were moving under the pressure of the wind … My wife and I attempted to hold the bathroom and toilet doors shut and we placed our two children between our bodies to protect them.’
Quotes in the book are from people interviewed as early as the actual day by journalists or as recently as 2013, by Cunningham herself. People struggled for words and found them. Bill Wilson put his wife Patricia’s arms around a street sign but then ‘her feet lifted off the ground, the wind was that strong. It’s like those cartoon things you see with people hanging onto a sign, almost horizontal’. Thirty years later, Wilson said the noise of the cyclone has stayed with him:
‘You wanted to scream because of this noise. The wind howling, the tin screeching as it’s dragging along the road, the branches cracking and whipping off, the rain pounding.’
By first light it had stopped. People crawled out from their often makeshift shelter to see a world they did not recognise. Looking across the rubble, they wondered if they were the only ones left alive. After the deafening wind came eerie silence; there was none of the usual Wet Season cacophony of birds and frogs. The able-bodied set out to check on family and friends but, without the familiar landmarks, struggled to find their way:
‘Everything looked so different, there wasn’t a bloody leaf on a tree. You know, there was absolutely nothing, which meant you could see for miles and miles and miles, something you could never do before.’
Shell-shocked members of the emergency planning committee gathered at the police station. Road clearing began. ABC journalists got some footage on a plane going south. But the new fear came in fast. There was no water or sewerage, electricity or phones. And help was thousands of miles away
The unofficial evacuation began at dawn. People just got in their cars and drove south. The first of a thousand battered cars reached Alice Springs by late afternoon Christmas Day. Locals rallied as they soon would in the cities and towns that hosted arrivals from the airlift. People with nothing were invited to choose from piles of donated clothing and often toys. Gratitude for that kindness recurs in survivors’ stories. But some felt patronised by volunteer helpers.
The jostling to make decisions, the panic and the heroic logistics around the airlift make for fascinating reading. Some 30 000 people were evacuated by civilian and military craft in five days. The ‘warning’ in Cunningham’s title is to take the experience of Tracy into account in thinking through our responses to the more frequent extreme weather we can expect in coming years. In this respect, the story of the evacuation is the most troubling. Choices were made here and the consequences have played out over decades; irrevocable dislocation, fractured families, a prolonging of psychological stress. But the case for dramatically reducing the population was compelling. Education bureaucrat Headley Beare, who found himself organising the evacuation, said goodbye to his own family and thought:
‘“That could be the last time I see those four”, because there was no certainty we would survive the emergency, and we were very conscious of the lack of amenities … You could smell the panic in the northern suburbs – there was a sort of stench which began to rise. We got – I reckon it was about the third day you sense a sort of terror taking people over, because the food was rotting, and somehow their world was rotting, and they felt they might die.’
Cunningham’s narrative is particularly strong on the experiences of women, and nowhere more powerfully than on the question of evacuation and return. Officially, evacuation was voluntary, families with children and the injured had priority and single women were at the back of the queue with the single men. But in the existing records and her own interviews, Cunningham uncovers strong feelings of coercion. The backdrop is a denial of women’s contributions. Those who did stay worked till they dropped, like the men.
Warning introduces the Aboriginal experience and the neglect of people living in camps in and around Darwin. This serves to highlight the space for an Aboriginal voice. Among contemporary photographs of the emergency in the book is a colour plate of Indigenous artist Rover Thomas’s painting ‘Cyclone Tracy’, painted in 1991. Thomas had been painting the cyclone for many years by then, following a vision in early 1975 in which he travelled with a bird’s-eye view from the Kimberley to witness the destruction of Darwin.
Sources are listed meticulously and there is a basic map and good index. A helpful addition might have been a list of ‘characters’ and their roles.
Cunningham bookends her narrative with meditations on memory and how it is shaped and morphed. For some, interviewed years later, time had made the events of Christmas Eve 1974 more vivid, for others less. The shock of the night and the disrupted days and nights that followed frayed chronology. Myths accumulated but with a kernel of truth at the heart. ‘It’s not just crucial that we remember,’ Cunningham writes, ‘it’s important what we remember. The shape memory takes has something to teach us.’
Kathie Rea is a long-term Darwin resident who arrived after the cyclone. She is a former journalist and editor.
Sophie Cunningham Warning: The story of Cyclone Tracy Text Publishing 2014 PB 336pp $32.99
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.