The likelihood of experiencing a cyclone is an expected occurrence when you’re living in the tropics during the Wet Season. Darwin has and always will be prone to cyclones because of its position on the globe. In the last 150 years, there have been at least four destructive cyclones that have caused the loss of lives and property. The most recent and well known is, of course, Cyclone Tracy.
Cyclone Tracy formed in the morning of the 21st of December 1974 in the Arafura Sea, about 700km north-east of Darwin. Tracy headed south-west, cleared the western tip of Bathurst Island and then turned south-east to head straight for Darwin.
Cyclone Tracy reached Darwin in the late afternoon on Christmas Eve 1974. By 10pm, the gale force winds were already causing damage. For the next six hours, terrified residents were subjected to heavy rain and screaming winds of well over 200km/h. The officially recorded windspeed was 217km/h, but that’s only because the anemometer broke – the Bureau of Meteorology estimates the gusts reached well over 250km/h.
Cyclone Tracy moved away from Darwin and the rain and wind began to ease, but the damage was done. By sunrise on Christmas morning 1974, over 70 people had died and over 70% of Darwin’s buildings were flattened. There was no infrastructure left standing for power or phones, so Darwin was almost completely cut off from the rest of Australia. In fact, most Australians didn’t even know about the cyclone until late in the afternoon on Christmas day.
The people who had nothing left in Darwin left – most didn’t return. Many of the people who were evacuated to Whyalla, Adelaide, Alice Springs or Sydney didn’t return. By the 1980s, 60% of Darwin’s population had relocated. The people who did stay worked to rebuild, and now Darwin has a new look and is one of the fastest growing capital cities in Australia.
We were fascinated by the Cyclone Tracey story and learnt more about her power and terror at the Darwin Museum. They have historical videos, before and after photographs, and a small dark room that simulates what it was like to be hit by a vicious cyclone in the middle of the night. There is also a great memorial on Trower Road…
What is a cyclone?
A cyclone is a low-pressure system that forms over tropical waters and produces winds of over 63km/h around the eye. Cyclones spin clockwise in the southern hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the northern hemisphere. The strength and severity of a cyclone is categorised from 1 (least bad) to 5 (most bad).
Strongest gusts (km/h)
Examples of typical effects
|1||Less than 125||Negligible house damage. Damage to some crops, trees and caravans. Water craft may drag moorings.|
|2||From 125-164||Minor house damage. Significant damage to signs, trees and caravans. Heavy damage to some crops. Risk of power failure. Small water craft may break moorings.|
|From 165-224||Some roof and structural damage. Some caravans destroyed. Power failures likely.|
|From 225-279||Significant roofing loss and structural damage. Many caravans destroyed and blown away. Dangerous airborne debris. Widespread power failures.|
|More than 280||Extremely dangerous with widespread destruction.|
How to prepare for a cyclone
Living with cyclones is a part of life in NT. The government knows this and provides plenty of advice and resources for the public. Essentially, the best thing to do is be prepared and stay informed – turn on your TV or radio and get on the internet. “Are you cyclone ready?”
- Make sure you have a cyclone plan and that everyone in your house – including children – is aware of what to do.
- Make sure you prune trees and clean up loose objects in your yard before cyclone season starts. If you wait until a cyclone is on its way, it’s too late.
- Make sure you have a cyclone kit ready. It should contain at least three days worth of food and water plus torches, candles, matches, etc. Download a free emergency checklist here. Locals suggest stocking up on beer as well.
- Make sure you stay informed – use radio, internet and TV.
Our first cyclone experience
On Thursday 19th November 2013, the category 1 Tropical Cyclone Alessia formed off the coast south of Java and started moving south-east towards Broome at approximately 13km/h.
Darwin was officially put on cyclone watch on Friday afternoon and advisory notices started playing on TV and radio. This was a little contradictory to how Darwin media usually is. It’s not uncommon to see ads on TV for events that have already happened, but in the case of Cyclone Alessia, there were TV and radio bulletins advising what to do as soon as Darwin was put on cyclone watch. By Saturday afternoon, Darwin was upgraded to cyclone warning and we started getting excited.
We already had an emergency kit and plenty of food and water, so we just had to stock up on beer and wine. We tidied up outside by putting loose bits and pieces in the shed and moving the outdoor furniture right up to the house. We also started expecting a worried phone call from the parents back at home. They were already fretting that we’d be taken by a croc and now they had to worry about a cyclone too?!
We woke up on Monday morning and discovered that TC Alessia had been downgraded to a tropical low when it made landfall a few hundred kilometres south of Darwin. What a fizzer!
While we’re a little let down we didn’t get to experience an actual cyclone, we’re obviously happy that TC Alessia didn’t make it to Darwin and do any damage. It was definitely a great practice run for the next cyclone.
Have you ever experienced a cyclone? We’d love to hear your story!