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Community leader, Darwin Disaster Welfare Council

Surviving Cyclone Tracy

‘…when the cyclone first came in, it came from the east. It blew across the cliff face, coming from the oval to the houses, and then across to Larrakeyah and to the other side of the Harbour. That first phase lasted until the early morning, when there was a total 180-degree change in its direction, and it started to blow directly from the west.

It was at that stage that we faced the biggest problem, because diagonally across from us [on the edge of the cliff above Mindil Beach] was the Hastings Deering’s manager’s house, which had been constructed well after the War…it simply disintegrated. It exploded. They’d gone up town…to take refuge…there were timbers from the house buried about 18 inches to two feet [c45-60cm] in the ground at the top of the cliff face… What you did…was close all the louvres on the side from which the wind was coming and open all the windows on the other side, which avoided the build-up of pressure within the house…we were able to switch the louvres, battling against the wind and rain that was coming in…The only major damage that we sustained was a 17-foot [over 5-metre] beam that came through the air from across the road. Instead of going and knocking out that side of the house…it hit a mahogany tree that we’d planted on the corner…and then fell and sliced the overhang on that side of the house, but without breaking the louvres…We had a pretty heavy growth of trees in the garden. That’s one of the things we started as soon as we got into the place. So we had poincianas, and I had some tamarinds and mahogany trees in the garden…there was a great deal of hard quarrying done [to deeply root trees]…

We three sheltered in the corner of the sink, in the kitchen, under a table. We crouched there for the whole of the duration of the cyclone. Prior to that…we had put some of the books and the paintings and photos and so on, into cabinets, so that we saved some of those…

The wind continued to blow from the west until finally the cyclone blew itself out. But there was a short period when the eye of the cyclone was right overhead, and you had deadly silence: nothing. That was probably the most frightening period… It was one of the most eerie experiences you can have. At one instant there was this horrific wind and rain lashing everything, and you could hear the trees, branches, breaking off and cracking, and the next moment there was absolutely dead silence. And you wondered then whether the end of the world had come, or that you were the only remaining inhabitants of the community…

Audit House (Giese residence), Larrakeyah, Darwin, 1990s

The next days and the Darwin Disaster Welfare Council

‘I sat in an office in town at and I took details of people who wanted to evacuate…for the first three or four days…[then] some sort of co-ordinating body [was suggested] for service and welfare groups…There was early recognition that while the individual organisations should pursue their own policies and programmes they should be fully aware of what other organisations were planning and doing… There was a tremendous amount of self-help and work by family groups and community organisations in the immediate rehabilitation of homes and areas…

The Darwin Disaster Welfare Council was representative of all the community organisations: youth organisations, handicapped persons’ associations, the sporting groups, social groups, the service groups like Apex and Rotary and so on. It was a widely representative group and it saw its role quite clearly as acting as an information base…to spread information between the people that [had been evacuated to] the south and the people [who stayed on]…members of the Darwin Disaster Welfare Council got round to all the state agencies. They helped set up those state committees. They got round to them, and they were able to assure, on a personal basis, what had happened to members of their family; what the situation was in relation to rebuilding; what the situation was in relation to the regrouping and the regrowth of community organisations…we were able to mediate here between what was a growing bureaucracy…and its contact with the people that had suffered and the ordinary members of the Darwin community…“Now look, these are your entitlements, and these are the sorts of things that you ought to be able to expect from government.”…

Regional committees were set up within Darwin that looked at the special problems in that particular area. We had one down at Larrakeyah and there was another one out at Stuart Park, and so on. We took on the job of moving around…to talk to the committees and to public meetings around Darwin to keep them abreast of what was happening within the hierarchy, as well as listening to the views they had on what their particular needs were at that time, and so far as they could see into the future, so that some plans could be made…They were pretty lively occasions…they gave a few  people who [needed to] let off steam the opportunity to do so…it was better they let off steam there than go out and do things that they would be sorry for afterwards. And it gave us the opportunity to interpret some of the things that were being done and to explain to them how we saw these things, and what benefit they could be to the community.

We spent quite a deal of our time in the evenings just sitting down with a group, anything from 20 to 100 in each of the little communities around Darwin, to try and keep them abreast of what was happening…Because rumour was rife. Newspapers were running wild stories…

What happened with the hierarchy in the cylone aftermath was that we got a build-up of a government-controlled, organised group that determined—and come hell and high water were going to determine—the future shape of Darwin. Like the bringing in of the Cities Commission…from Canberra, to rebuild the northern suburbs.

Now we had one hell of a battle to convince the hierarchy of the day that was not the way to go about rebuilding Darwin, and that there needed to be much more discussion with the people that were going to be the objects of the exercise, and not simply dictated to by people coming in from Canberra with views on the way in which a city should be built and operated…

It would have been possible to have found a small group of people—a cabinet if you like—five or seven people, who possibly under the direction of the Administrator of the day, could have been responsible for re-establishing Darwin. Now they could have drawn on General Stretton’s resources and his contact with the military forces, and the central communications system that they’d set up in Canberra…But the people of Darwin reacted badly to the appointment of an El Supremo…coming in and, in their view, without having a full understanding of the Darwin psyche; it was different from other places in Australia in its makeup and its attitudes and its aspirations…this was the only way in which you could give the people themselves the opportunity to feel: one, that they had some input into what was happening; and two, that there were people who could represent their views before the authority or authorities that had been set up, and that would continue to operate after the cyclone. They were not fly-by-night organisations that would say: “The task is now completed, and we leave the place.”

The sort of assistance that a Canberra-based organisation could give in terms of technical advice and assistance, and architectural resources and so on, to use them as an adjunct to a local body would have immeasurably improved the relations between the Territory and Canberra, and I think would have been infinitely more effective in carrying out the major reconstruction program…[ the Darwin community] didn’t like people from outside, who hadn’t been in the place, or people that had come in and after six months were telling them what to do…

At this time the leavening of local government—self-government—was working very strongly in the Northern Territory, and there was a feeling that this was simply another way in which Canberra could continue to maintain its control of Darwin and the Northern Territory. So that the movement of the Cities Commission and so on ran against a very, very strong anti-Canberra feeling, that the Territory was moving, at long last, to become a political unit, a unit that would have similar responsibilities and powers to any of the states, and that in all senses would manage its own affairs…

The interstate groups performed a very useful role, and indicated something of the broader Australian spirit: that they could…make contributions to tragedies and events outside their own provincial areas. I think it also led the states—certainly Western Australia and Queensland—that bore the brunt of the evacuees…it gave them some heart also in fighting what were, in those [years] after the cyclone, strong movements towards more centralisation…

There  was a view which gathered considerable force: that, instead of letting the Commonwealth largely determine the rate of change and the progress of self-government and so on in the Northern Territory…more and more it should be driven by the people of the Territory…a self-governing community enjoying the same rights and privileges, and accepting the same responsibilities as the states…that was very clearly demonstrated by the numbers of people that offered themselves as candidates for…the Legislative Assembly [in 1978].’

Managing future disasters

Remnants of community organisations [that had been] carrying out services before Tracy...with a little financial assistance and support...would have been able to [continue to] undertake these tasks.

I would hope that there would be established within each of the states an organisation like the Council of SociaL Services that would be representative of all the service and welfare agencies, fully operational and available to whatever type of state or federal body is established to handle crisis situations in the future.' 

Extracts from Harry Giese’s oral history interviews, NTRS 226, transcript 755, Tape 38, pages 2-6, 9-13; Tape 39, pages 3-10, Northern Territory Archives Service, Darwin

See Guide to Archives Relating to Cyclone Tracy, NT Archives at https://dtc.nt.gov.au/arts-and-museums/northern-territory-archives-service/archives-subject-guides/cyclone-tracy-archives

See also Darwin Disaster Welfare Council Final Report, 1976, Harry Giese, President at http://trove.nla.gov.au/version/20673498

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