This past Christmas marked 40 years since Cyclone Tracy, one of the most destructive disasters ever to hit Australia. For many Red Cross volunteers and people around the country, it was a day with heavy memories attached.

In commemoration of this significant event, the following is an adapted excerpt from the book The Power of Humanity: 100 Years of Australian Red Cross 1914-2014 by Melanie Oppenheimer.

One of the most catastrophic disasters in Australian history was on Christmas morning 1974, when Cyclone Tracy destroyed Darwin. With winds over 217 kilometres an hour, the eye of the storm passed directly over the city leaving 45,000 residents homeless, 65 people killed, and hundreds injured. The devastation of the city was immense with services including electricity, communication, water and sewerage all severely damaged. The Natural Disasters Organisation under the leadership of Major-General Allan Stretton, along with military and voluntary organisations assisted in the huge clean-up. Leon Stubbings (former Red Cross Secretary-General) organised blood supplies, co-ordinated voluntary relief supplies, the registration process for evacuees and an enquiry information centre. Residents were evacuated to southern states, while a state of emergency was declared until 31 March 1975. For six months the city became a virtual ‘no-go’ zone with a permit system in place to control the recovery and re-building operation.

Cyclone Tracy 1

Early on the morning of 26 December, and at the request of the Natural Disasters Organisation, an emergency team of 20 highly experienced officers was sent from the New South Wales Division of Red Cross. Four tracing and registration experts from Western Australia and Dr Beal, Director of the South Australian Blood Transfusion Service arrived from Adelaide. This initial group was later replaced by a team of 16 people recruited from Victorian, South Australian and Western Australian Divisions. In Sydney, 82 volunteers maintained a twenty-four hour roster at Mascot airport for two weeks to meet the evacuees.

Red Cross Branches in Katherine, Tennant Creek, and Alice Springs played a key role in the relief operation, assisting thousands of refugees who streamed south in the aftermath of Tracy. Almost 6,000 evacuees drove south and arrived in Tennant Creek between 26 and 31 December. They were accommodated, fed and supplied with essential clothing and supplies such as nappies, babies’ bottles and food. Katherine “swarmed with Darwin refugees”, arriving around the clock “shocked, depressed and weary”.

Red Cross volunteers take phone enquiries after Cyclone Tracy. Photo: Australian Red Cross Archives

Red Cross volunteers take phone enquiries after Cyclone Tracy.
Photo: Australian Red Cross Archives

The Red Cross Disaster Team worked seven days a week from 8am until 8pm, helping people to locate their loved ones and taking enquiries. Red Cross also ran a first aid and clothing centre. A social worker was appointed to the Northern Territory Division in March 1975 to assist with referrals and distribution of cyclone relief funds.

Helen Randall was one of the cyclone survivors. As a child of 10, she and her family were evacuated to Perth with only the clothes on their backs after their home was totally destroyed. Helen’s family were housed in army barracks and assisted by Red Cross with food, clothing, toiletries and toys. “I will never forget the generosity of this organisation, it still brings tears to my eyes,” Helen recalled in 2010. The family was later re-housed and once again Red Cross supplied furniture, electrical goods and more.

Queensland and South Australian Red Cross Divisions had the heaviest workload with evacuees. Through 1975, Red Cross continued to provide a range of general supplies to Darwin evacuees and those who remained behind. Bedding and linen was especially needed, with orders for 2,000 double and 3,000 single mattresses, 7,000 pillows, 100 cot mattresses and 100 mosquito nets placed with the South Australian Division. 14 cartons of clothing were sent to the Roper Valley Aboriginal Mission with instructions that they be distributed to Aboriginal people evacuated from Darwin.

This story originally appeared in Resilience, our emergency services e-newsletter. The Power of Humanity: 100 years of Australian Red Cross 1914-2014 can be purchased from our online shop.


All photos: Australian Red Cross Archives