I went along to the launch of Sophie Cunningham’s Warning, a great non-fiction narrative about Cyclone Tracy, which destroyed Darwin in 1974. I’ve been a fan of Sophie’s writing since her novel Geography was released. The sense of weather at it densest and sometimes extreme pervades her writing. The descriptions of summer storms in Sydney made me realise that she wasn’t just describing the weather, she “got” weather. Disasters feature in a walk on role in many of her writings. So I was not surprised when I heard that she had turned her gaze to Cyclone Tracy. I was pretty excited and then honoured, when through a colleague at work, I heard she was looking for someone to help provide a disaster management context, and we were put in touch. It has been a fascinating and enjoyable experience for me, forcing me to reflect on a number of things.
Tracy, I think was possibly our greatest disaster. It was catastrophic in the sense that it almost completely destroyed a major metropolis. It also forced us to think about our practice. When I started in emergency management 20 years after, instructors at the Australian Emergency Management Institute talked a lot about the Tracy effect, about the impact of the evacuation, and how it changed how we think about evacuation. The evacuation destroyed many lives. Now we try to keep people as close to their homes as possible, and support them to stay. Of course this is easy to write in the comfort of our home, and I can see without the benefit of hindsight, why Stretton would have taken that decision. We have since learned.
Sophie’s book is important because is multifaceted. It is a cracking yarn about the night, and the aftermath. This is the gift of the novelist to the narrative. What she also does it gives equal voice to the long and painful recovery, so you get the sense of the complexity of the issues. She also without fear addresses gender issues, and the experience of the Larrakia. This is a narrative that has been completely missing from the Tracy story (another paper by Kat Haynes and Dee Bird also redresses this glaring oversight). She also places it in the social and political context of the times, the mid 70s, frontier Australia-the police in hot pants, not a great look! (not much different from Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia), which in many of the breathless takes on recent disasters, is forgotten. Disasters are the intersection of the hazard and the socio-political environment. Too often, unless it is a Katrina, we forget the socio-political bit of it.
One of the dawning lightbulbs for me when reading the book was that Stretton was only in Darwin for a week. His name is inextricably linked with Darwin, but it was the evacuation, and by New Year he was gone. I had the sense he was there for the first months.
The fact that it is written from 40 years after is a strength, as it allows for the event to settle into context, we better understand what did Tracy mean. And for people who experienced it, they still recount the details as clear as it was yesterday.
Tracy is etched into the psyche. I was overseas visiting family when it struck. I recall seeing images of a destroyed town on French TV. It was only when I saw the ANZ sign that I realised that it was in Australia. My aunt translated, saying Darwin was destroyed. We had, only two months earlier passed through there on our way to England. I recall flying over the non-descript suburbs, and the humidity at the airport. I remember thinking, now it is all gone. We had a family in our street who survived Tracy. They didn’t really talk much about it, although I do remember them with T Shirts along the lines of “ My wild night with Tracy” or the Lights went out with Tracy. I remember wishing I had one, and their Dad saying, you had to go through it to get one. On reading Warning, I am now glad that I didn’t have one of those T Shirts.