Besides a couple of largish ‘east coast lows’ (we can’t officially call them cyclones because these storms don’t originate in the tropics) while living near Bangalow, my main claim to fame is cyclone Tracy, a category 5 which decided to substitute for Santa in Darwin on Christmas eve, 1974.
I was in Darwin on a working holiday, having just finished my Honours year in zoology at Adelaide University. A couple of us were staying with Patrick and house-sitting (the irony!) for his parents. I’d met Michael, Charlie, Patrick and Carol at St Ann’s College, the co-ed student residence at which I was boarding. (I really enjoyed living there – a big old former grand house in North Adelaide. No one was supposed to have pets, but a young couple had a baby wombat, Puddleglum, they were caring for in cognito – sort of. The husband’s parents were wildlife carers. The principal initially hit the roof, then warmed to the little darling and allowed her to stay – until she started digging up the landscaped gardens, indicating it was time for her to be released back on Eyre Peninsula where she’d originally been recsued from her roadkilled mother’s pouch.)
Back to Darwin: we’d been given several days’ warning that the cyclone was in the vicinity and was a biggie, but Darwinites are pretty ho-hum about cyclones – just an accepted part of living there. The city itself is fairly protected by a couple of big islands to the north, but Tracy determinedly came down the sea corridor between those islands and straight onto the city.
I was at a Christmas eve party at the medical students’ home (Michael and Charlie) as the wind was getting up. We drove home about midnight as the radio was telling us to batten down the hatches. We could hardly drive the car for the gusts of wind.
Inside the house as the wind grew stronger, we tried to stop the water coming in the glass louvre windows (a whole bank in the lounge room) by putting towels down, but it was like someone was playing a fire hose from the outside. We soon gave up, and hurriedly retreated to the bathroom (three adults and one Alsatian) when we saw the wall of glass windows bowing inwards. We sure didn’t want to be there when they smashed!
The noise of the wind was incredible and the lightning and thunder had an eerie quality. We had a torch and radio until the batteries ran out. Electricity was cut off as a precaution. Every now and then we could hear ripping and crashing sounds. One of them was our own roof being torn off, but we were too cautious to go out of the bathroom – the ceiling stayed put, thank goodness, so we were quite dry.
After a few hours the ‘eye’ came through, but even then we didn’t venture out, as the wind was going to come back just as strong as before at some point and we didn’t want to get caught outside.
We let the dog go at some point as he was getting agitated and smelly – humans probably exude fear pheromones, too. I didn’t ever feel I was going to die, although there was certainly some fear of what was going to happen next and uncertainty about what to do if the place was blown down around us – fortunately that didn’t happen. It was very much a case of sitting still and waiting, being patient for 8 hours for sheer self-preservation.
Eventually the sun came up, and there was a knock at the door! We did indeed have one door left, but the rest of the house was trashed. The next-door neighbour who knocked at our door merely had water damage to his house, but the neighbouring house on the other side of us had completely vanished, along with the rest of the houses in the street. Just debris and furniture remained strewn all over the place.
After ascertaining that we were all right, the neighbour organised us to door-knock the neighbourhood (if there were doors, otherwise just call out) and tell people to evacuate to the local school which was brick and still standing (except it had lost its windows). Most people were shell-shocked and fearful, some asking if ‘it’ was going to come back.
I was lucky in that I found my backpack with clothes not too far away. The dog reappeared a day later. Other people lost everything, with houses uninsured. We moved to a nearby block of flats, which were brick and still standing – the inhabitants left wholesale for Katherine down south, and said we could help ourselves to the food in the refrigerators, so we got generators from somewhere and ate our way though eight sets of Christmas food over the next week. We helped our friends’ families with the cleaning up.
We were shipped out on the last plane. My parents were understandably sick with worry, but I got a message out with one of the people driving to Katherine so their fears were allayed.
I had been working in a temporary job for an agricultural department of the Northern Territory government, studying tree growth of some kind (can’t remember the details), but after the storm there were no more trees to study, so I was transferred to the Mt Gambier pine plantations for a few weeks until my contract ran out.
And I don’t remember ever collecting that reference for the house-sitting job!
Update: There are more photos for the 40th anniversary here.