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Through flood and tempest: remembering cyclone Tracy

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Over the last month much of the east coast of Australia has been devastated by flooding, among the worst in living memory. We’ve seen stories of extraordinary efforts to evacuate desperate residents from rising flood waters, and the tragedy of people left homeless and towns swamped deep in mud. Once again, the ABC has been reporting around the clock and providing critical community updates, continuing its long tradition as the nation’s emergency broadcaster. For many alumni, the scale of the current devastation brought back memories of another disaster of epic proportions nearly 50 years ago, which wreaked havoc on Darwin. When tropical Cyclone Tracy tore into the northern capital late on Christmas eve and in the early hours of Christmas morning, 1974, the ABC was a crucial source of information. Most of the city’s homes were destroyed or badly damaged. Scores of people died and more than three quarters of Darwin’s residents had to be evacuated, including ABC staff. The ABC office was badly damaged and when Queensland-based broadcaster Peter Clarke was flown in to replace exhausted staff, he was faced with spartan, wartime-like conditions, regular power outages and a camaraderie that he’s never forgotten.

Darwin After Cyclone Tracy 

By Peter Clarke / 16 March 2022

In December 1974, I was finishing a stint in the ABC regional radio and television studios in Rockhampton in Central Queensland. I was an absolute broadcasting newbie. Many an ABC broadcast journalist had done some ‘training time’ in ‘Rocky’, a beef town on the banks of the Fitzroy River where the train travels down the main thoroughfare, Denison Street.

The ABC studios were directly across the road from the river, in the old Mt Morgan Gold Mining Company building on Quay Street. The tiny radio studio, behind the front reception area, was in the former gold vault with an enormous heavy door, the best sound proofing ever, but no windows and slightly airless. Real bunker, bubble broadcasting.

In those days, the ABC’s Rockhampton branch had a small newsroom, a couple of rural officers and a television studio with ‘robot cameras’ from where we telecast a series of nightly news bulletins, out west to Emerald, Barcaldine and Longreach, and north and south to various tropical coastal centres. 

I remember well my first night reading television news (before teleprompters), starting with only half a bulletin and the remaining pages of copy being slid across the table for me to grab and read to air, sight unseen, including unfamiliar local names. Presenting the local weather, in front of a map stuck to the studio wall, was part of the duties too. 

That’s ‘training’!

Community engagement was very much part of the experience. We visited local beef stations and agricultural farms lugging a heavy Kudelski-made Nagra IV portable tape recorder, along with a vintage STC hand-held Bakelite microphone, to interview locals.

A typical heavy and cumbersome Nagra IV portable tape recorder, with STC hand-held Bakelite microphone, that reporters had to lug around to record their field stories in the 1970s.

I organised a Children’s Christmas Parade through town, driving the ABC station wagon with a big speaker blasting out jolly march music. The junior rural officer, in full cowboy rig and cracking his stock whip, led the parade of local kids who were wearing home-crafted costumes of all kinds. 

The Rockhampton experience stood me in good stead for what was to come soon after.

Christmas Day 1974

On Christmas Day, 1974, we stood in the Rockhampton studio reception area watching our very first ABC television pictures broadcast in colour. It was a double whammy. Not only colour images but initial news footage of the devastation of Darwin wrought by Cyclone Tracy, late on Christmas Eve and in the hours following.

The fact it was Christmas Eve was part of the problem. Cyclone Selma had by-passed Darwin to the west a little earlier. A certain ‘she’ll be right’ obliviousness reigned. Locals were in full Christmas Eve celebratory mode including plenty of drinking. Well, a lot of drinking. 

To many, the Christmas festival seemed to provide some kind of ‘mystical’ protection from the forces of nature. Later reports described how the birds cleared out of town before the cyclone hit. Apart from the Indigenous locals, few Darwin citizens took much notice of this ‘warning’. News outlets had skeleton staff on duty.

Tracy had struck Darwin with an intense fury. Wind gusts reached an estimated 240 kilometres per hour. Some measuring instruments failed, exceeding their scales – the official anemometer at Darwin Airport blew away at 217 km/h. Seventy-one people died. A major evacuation was essential for the 30,000 or so rendered homeless by the destruction of over 80 per cent of Darwin’s housing, most of it ill-designed and too poorly built to withstand such forceful winds.

Posted to Darwin

Some weeks after Cyclone Tracy, I’d only just returned to Brisbane when posted to Darwin to replace traumatised ABC staff who had been evacuated.

I was picked up at the airport by a local ABC colleague. Brisbane in summer had been warm and clammy enough but, as I disembarked from the aircraft, I was wrapped immediately in the hot and humid embrace of wet season Darwin.

Then a gobsmacking image I shall never forget. ‘Take a look at that,’ said the staffer. He pointed to a very high water-tower near the airport. It looked battered. Embedded in the side of the tower was a Holden car. Somehow, in that instant, Tracy was summed up for me.

There was more to come. The ABC local took me on a Cook’s tour of the devastated city. The suburbs were simply obliterated. Vast stretches of ‘dance floors’ marked where houses had been ripped apart, leaving just the floors sitting on stilts. Some of those stilts had been wrenched around past 90 degrees to their original angle. Debris and rubble lay around everywhere.

I glimpsed some families trying to use what was left of their homes, mainly downstairs, to eke out a primitive existence under tarps and cyclone twisted sheets of corrugated iron. But not many of those. Amidst this destruction, every now and then, stood a house completely untouched, as if nothing had occurred. The strange, inexplicable serendipities of the cyclone’s roiling path.

It was quite the introduction.

Broadcasting in Tracy’s Aftermath 

Then to work. 

Darwin was a mostly male city at that early stage. Women and children had been flown out to Perth and elsewhere. There were no shops or eateries open for the first period of my posting there. We all ate in a large Commonwealth canteen.

Some of the ABC studio buildings had been damaged, including the record library, but were still operational. The radio service broadcast to not only Darwin but down the Stuart Highway to Katherine, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs, across to Gove and surrounding remote settlements south, east and west. They were untouched by Cyclone Tracy. But we in Darwin experienced constant power outages initially: a sudden loss of lights, a failure of electronic equipment including broadcast desks until the big diesel generator, just outside the radio studio, kicked in. 

The battered ABC building – ‘ABD Darwin’ – in the wake of Cyclone Tracy.

Our listeners in other parts of the Northern Territory shared our moment-by-moment trials and challenges. It was an odd mix of frontier and ‘wartime’ broadcasting. Difficult often but very satisfying. Many a night, we slept on camp stretchers under the broadcast desk in the air conditioning. Eventually, I stayed in a motel room but most of my time was ‘at work’, even off-shift.

Again, as in Rockhampton, I found myself not only broadcasting on radio, but presenting television news bulletins as well. One pleasant surprise was being able to appear on television wearing a shirt without a suit jacket. Very Darwin relaxed and sensible. In Rockhampton, despite the tropical heat, a full suit jacket and tie was still de rigueur. On top, at least. Below, I wore stubby shorts and sandals.

We gathered many stories from those who experienced the cyclone directly, recountings we recorded on tape or simply listened to as oral history and folded into our own vicarious memories of Tracy.

The most common description we heard repeatedly was the unimaginable noise of the cyclone. ‘Try standing right behind a 747 at full throttle! That will give you an idea. The intense sound of Tracy entered deeply into the senses and cores of so many Darwin citizens, never to leave them.

Some stories had an edge of black humour. One described a bloke who was sitting on an outside dunny when Tracy struck. The walls around him were stripped away. But immediately a sheet of corrugated iron was wrapped around his ‘throne’, leaving his head just poking out. There he sat, trapped, for the duration. He survived.

Other stories were harrowing. One told of a family huddled in their bathroom, the last redoubt for so many terrified families. Their toddler drowned in the bath just metres from her mother who simply could do nothing to save her in the middle of the tumult

Another mother, also crouching with others in the disintegrating bathroom, had her toddler snatched from her arms by the wind. The little girl flew away into the roaring, cyclonic night. Later, the mourning family was out searching for her in the surrounding devastation. Suddenly, amongst the rubble and debris, they spotted their child walking down the road largely unharmed. She was too young to tell them exactly what had happened to her. One happy ending.

The post-Tracy cyclone experience has stayed with me, inevitably, as a most unusual passage in my broadcast journalism career. It embedded in me how vital ABC broadcasting was to our audiences especially those in very troubled circumstances, not knowing what lay before them in their lives. Yes, we gave them orthodox ‘news’ but also stories that connected them to others in their community who had shared the horrors of Cyclone Tracy. It gave them a sense of companionship and reassurance in the long, hard aftermath. This is public broadcasting as it can be when disaster strikes. In these days of more ‘fragmented’ media that the digital revolution has brought us, it seems, now, a distant ethos. A different time.

There was inevitably a slight ‘barrier’ between the remaining ABC staff and us ‘blow-ins’ who hadn’t experienced the cyclone directly. ‘Southerners!’ 

Towards the end of an on-air shift, the station’s technical director, who was a remaining local, came on the intercom. ‘Would you like to join us in the pub after this?’ he said.  Of course, I agreed with alacrity. 

One yarn, whether apocryphal or not, was that the first truck into Darwin after Cyclone Tracy was a load of beer. It fits.

In the pub, the first round of beer arrived. I started sipping mine. I looked around. All the others had downed theirs and the next round had already arrived. And almost instantly had disappeared down my colleagues’ throats. I pushed on through my first tinnie. Then the third round arrived. Soon after the fourth.

I was in Darwin. But not really of Darwin. But it was a time I never forgot. For the broadcasting, the people and the camaraderie. And it became part of my skill-set as an ABC broadcaster for ever. 

Peter Clarke joined the ABC in Brisbane in 1974. He was the first presenter/producer of ‘Offspring’ (now ‘Life Matters’) on the Radio National network. He pioneered national radio talkback in that program and this then spun off into ‘Australia Talks Back’ where he filled in for Executive Producer, Lindy Raine and presenter, Sandy McCutcheon. Peter has anchored every radio shift from Breakfast to Late Night. After leaving the ABC, Peter undertook a Masters degree, and has lectured in and taught media and journalism to undergraduates and post graduates at various universities including RMIT and Swinburne. He podcasts regularly under the title #transitzone.

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