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.]
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.