There had been cyclone warnings continually through the day of 24 December, 1974, but the Christmas parties went on as usual. We had had the same warnings only three weeks before and the storm had missed Darwin, as it had ever since the last cyclone in 1937.
During the evening, the reports put the centre as nearer and nearer to Darwin, but rather than emphasizing that the cyclone was headed directly toward the city, most reports said it was “North by North West traveling East by South East”. People were advised to fill bath tubs with water, open windows away from the cyclone, get under the bed, etc.
At my home in Fannie Bay, the electricity went off shortly after midnight and soon there after so did the radio. The wind was pounding the living room end of the house. A few bamboo trees were swishing against the large picture window and I was afraid that it would soon be a problem, so I went out and cut them off with a hatchet. After several efforts to sleep, I gave up and read by candlelight.
There was only one person in house with me, Kevin Sherlock. The Canadian, John Greenwood, who lived in the third bedroom , stayed with his fiancé, Mary, during the night at the nurses quarters at Bagot Reserve.
There was heavy crash on the end wall of the living room, which I later found out to have been caused by the large tree near the driveway falling over. Despite the heavy winds prior to the eye, the house stood up to the storm without noticeable damage.
When the lull of the eye came, it was in such a contrast to the raging elements a few minutes before, that it was unbelievable. Not a breath of wind and no rain. I walked in the garden and discovered every large tree had been blown down. The lull lasted about 15 or 20 minutes.
Then the wind began to build up again. This time two small trees began to hit the windows in the dining room, so again I went out and cut them off with a hatchet. They just disappeared in the wind as they were cut. As yet there was no debris flying around. A trellis had come loose, so I tore it down and put it under the house so that it would not knock against a sliding door to the new room just built under the house.
I was no sooner back in the house when one of the living room windows went. And, shortly thereafter, the louvers burst in the bedrooms. Next, I saw the hatch to the attic pop up, so I knew the roof was going. You could hear the tin being torn from the roof by the fierce wind.
It was time to seek refuge. I had already taken the pictures off the walls and placed the heavy ornaments on the floor. And I had moved my lounge chair cushions (all 15) and most books from the living room into the master bedroom, because before the lull, it looked like the living/dining area would be filled with water when the large windows broke. Kevin and I decided to get under the bed in the centre bedroom, because it had a double bed high enough to allow crawling under.
By this time the water was pouring through the windows and we were lying cold and wet. I could feel the movement of the floor under me and the shuttering of the house, so I decided that I was not going to stay in the house while it broke up. Luckily, the door and stairway were on the lee-side of the house, so after much tugging we were able to get the door open and go down the stairs. The house was of high level construction, resting on cement pillars.
At the foot of the stairs was an alcove made by the wall of a storeroom and one of the doors into it. It was away from the wind and seemed to be a sturdy spot. So here we huddled. Just in front of us was a three foot high metal cabinet for shoes and I held tightly to it so that it would not blow away. I felt that it would give some protection if anything fell on us. I only had my sarong on, so I placed it over our heads and held it down so that we had some protection from the old wind and rain. There was little we could do about the icy draft coming up our backs from under the door.
There was a terrific crash from upstairs, and I thought that there goes the china cabinet and all the dishes. But later, it turned out to be a yard square piece of metal smashing through the bathroom window and burying its end into the floor. I have often thought, what if we had taken refuge in the bathroom !
From time to time I shone the torch on the beams resting on the cement pillars near us to check that they had not moved. If they had, then we could be crushed by the house falling off the stilts. I could see cracks in the brick wall of the new room six feet away, but they were not increasing and even if the wall did fall our way, only a few top bricks would reach us, so this was not a great worry.
Being in the tropics, cloths had not occurred to us. Here we were in short pants and one sarong between us. Now we were freezing, and the storm could go on for hours. Then I thought of the car in the carport which was in the lee behind a small downstairs bedroom.
I decided to try to get to it. The car was locked, and in the rush to leave the house, I had left the keys in the living room. But I remembered where I had left the hatchet.
I found the hatchet, and after scrambling over a pile of bricks and two toppled fridges, I made my way under the house to the car. The car being a VW Beetle, it had a small triangular side window which I broke with the hatchet. In reaching in to open the door, I cut my fingers, and this was the only injury I was to receive that night and in all the hectic days to follow.
I went back for Kevin, and with the one torch, we made our way back to the car. It was a haven of peace and warmth after what we had experienced for the past two or three hours. There we remained - Kevin in back and I in front, crouched down on the floor in case the brick wall or the whole house came down. Hopefully, the roof and seats would give us some protection.
Daylight finally came. Our first view of the world at daybreak was the bedroom end of the house next door. Kevin said that it looks like they lost their roof too. Till then we felt that we were the only ones in strife, and that my house was the only one damaged. As I looked, I noticed holes in the wall next door, and said that I hoped my bedroom did not have such holes.
The storm had passed, and soon there was only moderate wind with light rain. I got out inspect the house. I had no worry about holes in my end bedroom wall. There was no bedroom period. Nor was there the middle bedroom where we had originally taken refuge. Both had disappeared - roof and walls. What was left was a finished floor with bits and pieces of furniture, window frames, closets, etc. Some of this was jammed against the verandah railing which had held. The roar of the cyclone had been so great that we had heard none of this destruction.
Some houses in the area were completely gone, some had a few bathroom/closet walls standing, and others were half intact. Only my two immediate neighbors’ houses were, except for one with a missing roof and both full of holes, in appearance much as they were the night before. I was on a corner, and by the direction of the wind, if the roof of the house next door had gone, it would have taken the rest of my house and the next house. As one house went, you could see the path of destruction downwind.
When the house upwind from me blew apart, its debris took the end off my house in a crosswind direction; then parts of both houses demolished the large house diagonally across the street. Beams of my roof were found in the yard behind this house, which means these large beams after hitting the house, were pushed by the wind over or through the house to the yard beyond.
The streets were littered with fallen trees, power poles and the remains of houses and furniture. Neighbors were checking on other neighbors. Luckily, no one was killed in this immediate area of Fannie Bay. I did not hear later of any serious injuries nearby. My only injury, as mentioned, was two cut fingers acquired unnoticed at the time, when I broke the small window in the car.
For a time, the shock of seeing the house in such a state caused me to wander around in a daze. However, we did get into the house which now was easy without a key, as the hallway went straight outdoors. The mess inside did not raise my spirits any. Luckily, the ceilings had held in all but the third, and now the only bedroom, but they were dripping everywhere. Most windows were gone. The wind had carried water and sand into everything.
As mentioned, a yard square piece of metal was buried in the bathroom floor. Above the shower, much like an arrow, a piece of wood had come in one wall and passed across the corner of the room and gone into the other wall. Most houses were covered externally by fibro, which proved inadequate, because it just did not stand up to flying debris of wood or metal.
Unfortunately, my bedroom, the end room had contained my shell, slide and stamp collections and photo albums. Shells and stamps were now scattered in the yard and street. The stamps were like confetti. The shells had been in four dressers, each with four drawers. Three of the dressers had broken up and the drawers were out and about.
Fortunately, the dresser with the cowries, was crushed against the verandah rail, and still had its contents. The cameras, typewriter and telescope were found under the meson the verandah or in the yard. The stereo equipment placed on the kitchen floor was wet.
Over the next few days, as things came to light, I was busy spraying against rust, and putting in plastic bags. It was all I could do at the time. Curios and shells were picked up over the next week, some two or three houses away. I did not find my last living room cushion till ten days later.
The task ahead was daunting. First I had to get the car out of the carport and into the street. The driveway was full of trees, electric cables and parts of the house. After clearing these, the car would not start as the engine was wet. At this time, a friend, Ted McCamish, arrived who had cleaning fluid, and after spraying the engine, it started. It was from this friend that we found that all of Darwin was the same – a wreck. Driving was different, because you had to weave around all sorts of rubble and trees, sometimes going up on the nature strip to get around some object too heavy to be pulled aside.
In Ted’s utility, we made quick visits to a few friends, whom we knew had been at home alone, to see if all was well. We decided to check on a caravan in the industrial area. It belonged to friends who were away for the Christmas season, and I had agreed to visit it each day for security reasons. The caravan was on its side, but up off the ground tangled in metal and lying on the owner’s two cars. Later in the day, we returned and by rocking the caravan back and forth with a rope tied to the utility, we got it to fall back upright, luckily without breaking an axel or blowing a tire. The following day we towed the caravan to the nature strip in front of my house, and it became Kevin & my sleeping quarters for the next 10 days. We tied large sheets of plastic over the roof to keep out the rain as there was structural damage.
In my friends’ yard with the caravan was another friend’s van. He was a mechanic or machinist. Investigation showed that all his tools were intact inside, which, I was told, were worth more than the vehicle itself; so we hitched the caravan to Ted’s utility and I got into the van and off we went in procession. Unfortunately, the van had some mechanical fault, because every time we stopped, so did the engine. Ted had to come back to restart it. We eventually arrived back at the house and both caravan and van were parked on the nature strip.
As well as the caravan, I had also agreed to look after these friends’ two small dogs, one a silky terrier and the other a very old mongrel. During the cyclone the dogs were in the new room under the house, which afterward, was minus the back wall and windows. The older dog was about the next morning, but the silky terrier did not show up till noon with a cut leg. I wondered how far she had been blown. I also had a cat with two half-grown kittens, and all survived the storm – where I do not know. The mother cat disappeared two weeks later, probably due to roving ownerless dogs that were about. For weeks after the cyclone the only food for these animals was tinned baby food, which they may not have liked, but which they readily ate.
The real task ahead was getting the house waterproof. Most people over the next hours and days, left the city by road and air to take refuge with family down south. The shock of the devastating cyclone gave them one thought – get out of Darwin. I, being from Canada had no where to go, and Kevin had no family interstate he wanted to lodge with, so we stayed and started to salvage possessions from day one. It was amazing what could be salvaged. Clothing spread over the yard and covered in mud, cushions, mattresses, etc, if washed or allowed to dry were fine, but it had to be done within a day or two, or they began to rot, especially if lying on the ground. The same was true of anything metal – it had to be kept free of rust. There was lot of rain after Tracey.
The first night after the cyclone, Kevin and I stayed with John and Mary at the nurses quarters on Bagot Reserve. Here there was little damage and it was dry. That night it rained heavily throughout. The next day we returned to the house to stay - to maintain a presence, as there were persons who visited wrecked abandoned homes taking what could be salvaged, even in daylight. Showing a light at night kept unwanted persons away. A few days after the cyclone, while going through backyards about three or four houses from me,
I was challenged by the owner from the ruins of his house. He wanted to know what I was doing. I told him I was collecting my cushions (there were a total of fifteen and they were bright orange). I had just discovered that they were spread over the backyards of the block across the street from me and once on their trail they could easily be seen among the assorted plants and household rubble. Anyway, my challenger had seen numerous persons stealing not retrieving. The difference was a fine point, because what the owners had abandoned would be useless to anyone, if left out in the open for any length of time.
In order to waterproof the house, the roof and windows needed covering. I started to pick up the roofing metal, sheets five or six feet by two and a half feet, and pile them in my yard. The sheets were everywhere, especially in the streets. I only chose the flattest, and only with nail holes, ignoring those with larger holes and missing pieces. Luckily, Fannie Bay being an older part of town, had this size metal in a good thickness. When the sheet was torn from the roof, it came away usually intact except for the holes where the nails had been. In the newer areas of Darwin, the metal was twenty-five to thirty feet long, and quite thin, with the result it came off the roof looking like twisted ribbon.
Eventually, I was going further and further away to get relatively unbent sheets. Over the following days, persons came to take what I had rejected, so it was good that I started ‘rebuilding ‘ early.
Firstly, the metal was nailed over the windows, but later this was replaced by plastic given by the hardware store. Although intact, the ceiling of masonite, kept dripping from the puddles forming above, so I punched holes in the ceiling and put buckets and pots on the floor to catch the water. The house was waterproof more or less.
It took ten days to get the roof on with the help of John who had carpentry skills. Firstly, a number of beams had to be replaced. The two trusses over the remaining bedroom were too heavy to replace, so the roof became split level. There was no shortage of wood, as the yards and streets contained all lengths and widths. Even if it were possible to tell, you weren’t particular whose house it had come from. The metal was nailed down and the old holes filled with plumbing filler. From a distance, the house looked awful, but it was waterproof, and it did the job till September, nine months later, when the builders arrived.
One of the greatest problems after Tracey was getting something to drink. The town water was off, but with all the labor and heat, cold drinks were a must. The ice in my freezer remained for four days, so that helped. I did not seem to be really hungry for three or four days. People without homes had sought shelter in the nearest school, which became a medical centre, evacuation point, soup kitchen and food distribution centre. The day after the storm, I went to the Darwin High School for breakfast. There was cold fruit juice.
There, I got my first series of needles – cholera to tetanus. I also had my fingers, which had become infected, looked after. For thirty days the high school was our source of free meals, bulk food and medical treatment. After that time, dinner at the school cost a dollar. These school centers existed all over Darwin, because so many people were living under conditions that made cooking difficult.
About two weeks after the cyclone, I got a generator thanks to Bob who owned the van of tools I had rescued. The generator ran the fridge and neon lights. We only ran it in the evening, which was enough to re-frost the fridge for the next day. Five weeks after Tracey, the electricity was reconnected, but not before an electrician came to disconnect all the wires which now went nowhere. When the electricity was turned on, the fans at first sprayed everything with water, but surprisingly they were working.
There was no hot water as part of the solar heating system had blown off the roof. Originally, there was no water in the house. A fire hydrant had ruptured on the street and for two days the neighborhood used it for bathing. But the authorities finally got around to shutting it off, maybe the military. On the route into town was the long exposed water main carrying Darwin’s water from the dam. This pipe had a tap every two or three hundred feet, so around dusk we went there to bath as did dozens of others. When the water was turned on again, my house, with both bathroom and kitchen intact, had no plumbing problems.
After the roof was secure and plastic on the windows, Kevin and I moved back into the house from the caravan on the nature strip. The floors had scrubbed clean and shiny again, but the ceiling & walls were stained deep brown and the paint kept breaking off and falling. I put a single bed for myself in the window alcove behind the sofa in the living room. Kevin went back into his bedroom, which was now minus a ceiling; when he looked up he could see the metal roof.
Eventually, I got the new hobby room under the house turned into a fairly comfortable roomy bedroom, which was to last me for the next 12 months.
This room has lost its end wall, most of the windows and had cracks in the remaining walls; all were resealed one way or another. The hallway upstairs, now leading nowhere, had its end closed off with the space becoming a storage area. Part of the storeroom under the house became my clothes closet.
From a distance, the house was a sight – a varied collection of metal sheets on the roof, which was split level, part peaked and part flat. Metal covered the inner wall where the bedrooms had been, and metal replaced the end wall in my new bedroom under the house. The floors of the missing bedrooms, we covered with tar paper, so that water did not leak into my bedroom below. The remaining outer walls of the house were full of holes patched with plastic and masking tape, as were the missing windows.
Structurally, I thought the house as stood was finished. It had been battered about by wind and rain, lost the roof, and two rooms. But a structural engineer eventually certified that the standing part of the house was sound. Anyway, I was insured to the full amount, and eventually an insurance assessor came.
In September I got a builder, and the house was rebuilt by Christmas – a most unusual year.
My garden was a hopeless mess after the storm – just a jumble of fallen trees and debris from other houses. It took a twelve-man navy team with two power saws eight hours to clear up the mess. In doing so they found Mary’s pieces of jewelry which were in John’s bedroom (the middle room). There they were in the grass on the opposite side of the house from the wind direction, where none of us had looked. No leaves were left after Tracey, as all trees and shrubs were stripped bare, but it did not take long for the hedge to re-sprout.
The owners of the caravan returned to Darwin ten days after Tracey – on the same day we moved back into the house. Next day we moved the caravan onto the lot proper. As neither person was working, they did a lot to help. Beside my house, I had also the task of salvaging and moving the library/ resource centre of the Department of Education, so it was good to have help around the house.
If someone had said that my house would be torn apart and my possessions blown about in the rain, I would have had a fit. But when the unthinkable occurs, the mind accepts and sets about the task at hand – to save, to rebuild. My main memories are of the devastation, of the co-operative spirit, of the good will on all sides, and of working till I dropped, day after day, because there was so much to be done at work and at home for the next six to eight weeks after Tracey.