Hurricane Katrina and Cyclone Tracy

There’s no need to repeat here the accusations that are blowing up a storm of criticism of the adequacy and timeliness, or lack of them, of the US federal government’s  response to the devastation of New Orleans and surrounding areas by Hurricane Katrina.  But the interesting question has been raised elsewhere:  would the response to a similar disaster in Europe, and the behaviour of its victims, be any different?  Others may know of European parallels:  but there’s also an instructive comparison to be made with the destruction of the northern Australian city of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy on New Year’s Eve, 1974.  I was in Canberra at the time and was one of the first people outside the Northern Territory to learn of the disaster half-way through Christmas Day, almost all of Darwin’s external communications having been blown away by Tracy. I visited Darwin just a few days later and found a lunar landscape of almost total destruction. There are of course major differences between the two disasters — but also some similarities, notably that in both cases the scale of the destruction necessitated the evacuation of virtually the whole city.

To quote the official account of the cyclone and its aftermath,

Early on Christmas Eve, Tracy passed the western tip of Bathurst Island, north of Darwin, turned around and began to accelerate towards the city. From midnight until 7.00am on Christmas Day, the cyclone passed directly over Darwin, with its ‘eye’ centred over the airport and northern suburbs … The rainfall was torrential and winds were officially recorded at 217 kilometres per hour (unofficial estimates placed them as high as 300 kilometres per hour). Houses and other buildings disintegrated under the onslaught, accompanied by the sounds of flying debris and breaking glass. With the cyclone’s passing, 49 people had died in the city and another 16 were lost at sea. Many more were injured. In all, 70 per cent of Darwin’s homes were destroyed or suffered severe structural damage. All services – communications, power, water and sewerage – were severed.

The account continues:

At the time of the cyclone, Darwin’s population was estimated at about 48,000. With essential services all severed, together with the risk of disease, and with food and shelter at a premium, a sizeable part of this population was evacuated. While many people left of their own accord by road, others were evacuated compulsorily by aircraft. The airlift began on Boxing Day [i.e. 26 December, less than 48 hours after the cyclone had struck] and over the next six days more than 25,000 were evacuated to southern cities. For the next six months access to the city was regulated by means of a permit system…
Once word of the disaster reached the southern states, Major-General Alan Stretton, Director-General of the Natural Disasters Organisation, was placed in charge of the rescue effort. He arrived in Darwin late on Christmas night [i.e. some 24 hours after the cyclone] and remained until 31 December. Emergency committees were established to deal with such matters as accommodation, clean-up, clothing, communications, evacuation, food, law and order, sanitation and health and social welfare. The defence forces played a major role in cleaning up the city and suburbs. …
Within two days about 10,000 people had left, about half by road and half by air. It appears that after this initial outflow the desire to evacuate dissipated – there was a growing feeling that it was better to "stay and see it out". However, Stretton was committed to reducing the city’s population to a "safe level" of 10,500, and he implemented a number of measures designed to make evacuation very attractive. … Stretton was supported by the government, which promised full reimbursement of personal costs consequent on evacuation.  The momentum of the evacuations was regained, and in the end 25,628 people were evacuated by air, and 7,234 left by road. By 31 December 1974 [one week after the cyclone] only 10,638 people remained in Darwin. …
The Darwin Reconstruction Commission was formally established on 28 February 1975 by the Darwin Reconstruction Act 1975. It had the principal task of planning, coordinating and undertaking the rebuilding of Darwin. Between 1975 and 1978 the Commission let contracts worth more than $150 million and coordinated the construction and repair of more than 2500 homes as well as other construction projects.

 The role of the Australian armed forces is especially noteworthy:

The three branches of the defence forces played major role in the relief operations. The defence contribution was effectively deployed through liaison with the local committees.  Early on 26 December naval aircraft left southern bases for Darwin, with urgent supplies and personnel. Seven naval ships left Sydney at 11.30 AM on 26 December. The Navy was to play a special part in the clean-up of Darwin – difficult, distasteful and sometimes dangerous work.  The Army flew specialist personnel into Darwin. Through them, rations, stores, equipment, and specialist vehicles were supplied.  The entire RAAF transport fleet was involved in the airlift of supplies into Darwin, and the airlift out of 9,678 people who were evacuated by military aircraft. 

In addition to the whole transport fleet of the Royal Australian Air Force, numerous commercial and private aircraft were used to help with the evacuation:  some of the QANTAS aircraft broke the then world record for the number of people carried in a single aircraft.  Gen. Stretton’s Natural Disasters Organisation organised a nationwide appeal for families throughout the country to offer accommodation in their homes for evacuees and the response was enormous.  In the words of Wikipedia,

Most of Darwin’s population was evacuated to Adelaide, Whyalla, Alice Springs and Sydney, and many never returned to Darwin. The town was subsequently rebuilt with newer materials and techniques. Cyclone Tracy was at least a Category 4 storm, although there is evidence to suggest that it had reached Category 5 when it reached Darwin.

As I say, there are substantial differences from Katrina, not least in the scale of the disasters and the numbers of people made homeless (and deprived of electricity, water, transport and sanitation).  There is also the major difference that in spite of the torrential rain that accompanied Cyclone Tracy, there was comparatively little flooding in Darwin: so despite the horrendous destruction, the airport runways, once cleared of debris, were almost immediately available for flights in and out, whereas both the New Orleans airports are apparently still under water. [Note, 4 Sept 05: Recent reports show that this is wrong.  Darwin’s international airport has been open and the runways in use ever since the storm and flood. Hundreds of refugees have been waiting there for evacuation in deplorable conditions.]   On the other hand, the resources of the Australian government and services in 1974 (and indeed at any other time) were tiny compared with those of the government of the richest and mightiest nation on earth more than a quarter of a century later:  in particular, few if any of the huge, long-range helicopters of the US armed forces, Coastguards, National Guards, and American civilian organisations were available to the Australians in 1974-75, and Darwin is far more remote from the main national centres and cities than New Orleans, Biloxi or Gulfport.  [Note: see Comment of 4 September 2005 below for comparative figures.]
Evacuating Darwin

To the best of my knowledge, there was no looting, no breakdown of law and order, and no criticism of the government’s response, either as to timeliness or adequacy.  The evacuation was carried out calmly and without fuss.  The Darwin population was by no means especially prosperous — probably no more so than that of New Orleans — and similarly mixed, with a fairly high proportion of Australian aborigines.  Darwin (and Canberra) had less advance warning of the cyclone than New Orleans had of the hurricane. In contrast to New Orleans and the other affected areas in the southern US, Darwin had great difficulty in alerting the rest of Australia beyond the vast dead Centre of the continent to its predicament and needs, as the cyclone destroyed almost all external communications.

My wife has always said, on the basis of the seven years in total that we spent living and working in Australia, that if ever we found ourselves in a tight spot, she would hope that there would be Australians there to help. 


11 Responses

  1. Patrick says:

    You comment upon the notable lack of looting following cyclone Tracy and it does contrast dramatically with New Orleans today. I have been wondering how people in the UK today would handle such an inundation following a storm and I think this may be a parallel:

    The North Sea Flood of 1953 was one of the largest natural disasters ever experienced in the UK. Over 1,600 km of coastline was damaged, and sea walls were breached, inundating 1,000 km². Flooding forced 30,000 people to be evacuated from their homes, and 24,000 properties were seriously damaged.

    URI North Sea Flood of 1953

    Different times, different people perhaps but was there much looting following the 1953 storm & flood? No reports as far as I can find.

  2. Ronnie says:


    Well done the Australians, especially at Christmas when most people would have been with their loved ones or more relaxed than usual in their barracks and boats. I assume, for I cannot think how they could be so efficient otherwise, that they had some plans and some structures for taking action. I imagine too, though you don’t mention the PR side, that when Tracy was threatening Ministers were briefed to be ready to respond intelligently to bad news even while wearing their Santa Claus outfits. All that kind of interconnection seems to have been lacking in America. It was interesting to hear Trent Lott say, in reply to the charge that poliocy had been deliberately anti-poor and anti-black, that the Red Cross and the Salvation Army were not like that. Did somebody think that a couple of vol. orgs. (one, remember, faith-based) would be sufficient? The whole thing began to look wonky when the Mayor of New Orleans ordered an evecuation before the storm and there was no sign of back-up in manpower, machinery, enforcement or encouragement. Nobody noticed: nobody bothered. I think we’d have done better, certainly in a olace with such a high-risk topology; had at least a paper exercise and designated a few key people at least in the public and military sectors.


  3. Brian says:

    Patrick: I have no recollection at all of the North Sea floods of 1953, having spent the whole of that year with the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in Hong Kong during National Service, so it wouldn’t have made much of an impression (no television, no UK newspapers), although I must have been aware of them. My wife remembers the floods quite well, but has no recollection of any looting. However, it’s well documented that there was extensive looting of bomb-damaged houses and shops during the blitzes of the second world war in London and elsewhere, so perhaps we shouldn’t get too high-minded with our American cousins — and especially not carry on about ‘the spirit of the blitz’!

    Ronnie: Absolutely right about the dreadful timing of Cyclone Tracy, striking late on Christmas Eve when virtually everyone in Australia was on their Christmas and mid-summer holidays. All the more remarkable that the response was so incredibly prompt and effective. I’m sure that they had a contingency plan for such an emergency ready prepared: but according to a former US Army Engineer General, there were similar contingency plans for dealing with hurricane and floods in New Orleans, and he said on television that he couldn’t understand why they weren’t put immediately into operation. As for government PR over Darwin and Tracy, I really don’t remember that it required much political spin, since the government and armed forces’ response was fairly obviously a success — and this was well before the days of 24/7 television and news coverage and the incessant demands of the media for official and ministerial comment.


  4. Brian says:

    From an Australian website:

    TL “Didnt we have widespread looting in Melbourne during the 1923 police strike??”
    Yes, and in Darwin following the WWII bombings.


  5. Patrick says:

    However, it’s well documented that there was extensive looting of bomb-damaged houses and shops during the blitzes of the second world war in London and elsewhere, so perhaps we shouldn’t get too high-minded with our American cousins — and especially not carry on about ‘the spirit of the blitz’!

    Oh dear it seems you are correct, having googled on the topic of looting I have found this:

    One of the most shocking crimes committed during wartime was the looting from bombed houses. In the first eight weeks of the London Blitz a total of 390 cases of looting was reported to the police. On 9th November, 1940, the first people tried for looting took place at the Old Bailey. Of these twenty cases, ten involved members of the Auxiliary Fire Service.

    The Lord Mayor of London suggested that notices should be posted throughout the city, reminding the population that looting was punishable by hanging or shooting. However, the courts continued to treat this crime leniently. When a gang of army deserters were convicted of looting in Kent the judge handed down sentences ranging from five years’ penal servitude to eight years’ hard labour. Some critics pointed out that Nazi Germany suffered less from this crime as looters were routinely executed for this offence.

    URI Crime in Wartime

    It seems that us Brits are not immune to a bit of looting, given the right circumstances.

  6. Peter Harvey says:

    The obvious natural disaster waiting to happen in Europe is an eruption of Vesuvius or a major earthquake in an urban area. Note that I do not mention a breach of the Dutch polders.

    I am sure that there would be a certain amount of looting, and I am also certain that the response from other European countries would be immediate anmd effective.


    PS (5 Sept 05): In response to an invitation for amplification of his thoughts about Dutch polders, a rise in sea levels caused by global warming, earthquakes causing tsunami, forest fires, etc., Peter has added this postscript:

    I didn’t mention the breaching of the polders simply because my brain is running faster than my fingers. Of course it would be a catastrophe but I can’t see it happening because the Dutch Government, unlike the American, can be trusted to keep them in good condition.

    Global warming? Of course, but I thought we were talking about sudden catastrophes. Earthquakes, yes, but not in Britain. I suppose one could happen underwater in the Mediterranean. I don’t know enough about the geology. No-one seems to be worried abut it.

    Fires are a problem, but the fact is that most of them are set deliberately. They are not easy to put out. A big fire in Spain this summer was the object of an enquiry because eleven members of a volunteer firefighting team were killed, so we know that the front of that fire was moving at 50 m per minute. The flames were 10 – 15 metres high and at that height even airborne techniques are useless; the only way of fighting it is by tree-felling and major earthworks. The front of the fire was generating 48 gigawatts of calorific power per kilometre; with four kilometres, the fire was generating as much power as 64 nuclear power stations. There is a proposal that there should be a European fire-fighting service.


  7. Brian says:

    A useful article in the Weekend Financial Times (3/4 Sept 05) provides some facts and figures for comparison:

    New Orleans has a population of about 450,000. The poverty rate, in 2000, was almost 28 per cent, according to the US census, more than double the national average. Two thirds of the population of New Orleans is black. … Sheila Zedlewski, director of the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center said: “Poverty was definitely a factor. Maybe it’s a wake up call that poverty in America is still a very big issue. People just don’t want to talk about poverty.” Ms Zedlewski said that two thirds of the poor in New Orleans are female-headed households with children. “They could get on a bus to evacuate, she said: but when they get to the other end they cannot just use their credit cards and go get a hotel.”

    While the scenes from New Orleans may be reminiscent of a developing country, the poverty statistics are very different. In the world’s poorest countries, there are far higher shares of people living below the poverty line often measured by economists typically as $1 or $2 per day. In the US the poverty line works out at more than $25 per day. But now questions are being raised about the adequacy of the infrastructure in New Orleans and about the adequacy of the emergency response – the kind of questions normally raised after natural disasters in the developing world. The breakdown of order which has followed in Hurricane Katrina’s wake has been far worse than occurred in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, after the tsunami that hit at the end of last year. … When the flood waters retreat, there is a longer-term issue of how the families recover. “How do they become economically viable again? They have little education, kids, no family structure . . and we as a nation no longer have a welfare safety net to support them,” Ms Zedlewski said.

    The population of New Orleans before the flooding and evacuations was thus a little less than ten times as big as Darwin’s in 1974. The population of the United States is currently just under 296 million. The population of Australia in the 1970s was around 13 million (now some 20 million). The United States annual defence budget is roughly US$425 billion plus tens of billions more in supplemental expenditures allotted by Congress throughout the year (source: Wikipedia). The 2005-06 Australian defence budget is around US$15 billion (and would probably have been less in real terms in 1974).


  8. Michael Sutcliffe says:

    “To the best of my knowledge, there was no looting, no breakdown of law and order, and no criticism of the government’s response,”

    You are kidding yourself if you believe there was no looting and no breakdown of law and order after Tracy. Ask someone from the Army who was cleaning up. I’ve heard plenty of stories of terrible things including rape. The following link is a series of verbal accounts from the Northern Territory Government archives. Several of them refer to serious looting and one of them is by a man who repelled looters by firing his revolver:

    I agree plenty of people pulled together as a community during and after Tracy. But there was also plenty of crime. As for the Government response being terrific, it is easier to evacuate a city of less than 50,000 than the population of New Orleans. Further to this, the population of Darwin was fairly homogenous and community orientated due to their small size and isolation. Also, Darwin was until fairly recently a city that relied on government support and military bases to be the size that it was, so the people were more likely to cooperate with a government evacuation.

    Now that Darwin has greater levels of social and economic diversity, if it had the same population as New Orleans and Cyclone Tracy hit today, the outcome would be pretty much the same as the US experience.

  9. Brian says:


    I’m sorry to hear that there were rapes and looting in Darwin after Cyclone Tracy; I don’t think they were widely publicised at the time, but my memory on that, as on other things at this distance of time, may well be at fault. Perhaps these things will always happen when there’s a breakdown of the ordinary social order and when such crimes seem likely to avoid detection or punishment. In New Orleans circumstances, and possibly in 1974 Darwin, breaking into a shop to get food or water when you can’t get them any other way seems to me both forgivable and also not really to rank as looting. Stealing cash or television sets is of course another matter.

    But the question of looting is really peripheral to the point I was trying to make about the government responses to the two crises. Of course it’s true that the numbers of people in Darwin needing to be looked after and then evacuated were much smaller than those in Louisiana and Mississipi. I have tried to make the point, though, that the resources available to the Australian Commonwealth government in 1974-75 were also much smaller than those available to the American state and federal governments in 2005, as was the size of the Australian population sustaining their government’s efforts in relation to the size of the population of the United States today. In one of these cases, such resources as were available were put to swift, efficient and effective use, with a minimum of fuss and a minimum of resulting human tragedy. It doesn’t look as if the same can be said of what’s been going on in the US in the past week.

    As for your belief that if Darwin’s circumstances were now similar to those of New Orleans the outcome of a Cyclone Tracy disaster would be much the same as the American experience, you could of course be right, but I very much hope that you are not. Perhaps nostalgia for more than seven happy years in Australia has given this particular Pom rose-tinted glasses, but I persist in believing that when it comes to a crunch, Australians tend to rise to the occasion in a remarkably pragmatic, unflappable, efficient, laid-back way that few others can match. Not always, mind; but usually. I think that the response to Tracy was an excellent example of that, and one that others could usefully follow. (And I’m not commenting on the Americans’ performance in the wake of Katrina in any kind of holier-than-thou spirit: I’m far from sure about how we Brits would cope in a similar emergency.)


  10. peggy says:

    hi, i know you have shared a bit of information about the rescue effort from the army forces but i would like to know about the other teams that helped with the recovery?

    Brian writes: I strongly recommend a remarkable essay in Vanity Fair about the response to Katrina by all the strata of authority from the Mayor of New Orleans to the President.  It's online here .

  11. fish says:

    i think its realy sad that every year western austrilia has to through this every year think of all the animals that die every year its so sad

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