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cyclone tracy devastat

Gerry Burke sent these diary entries by Joe Kelly,St John's College - we thought that those who remember the events might like to read these memories; we thought that for those who don't remember, the entries make for interesting reading, part of MSC Darwin history.



8.30 pm We are waiting for the Cyclone at the moment. It is only 40miles away with winds near the centre up to hundred miles per hour. Even now it is blowing quite strongly outside. Radio reports indicate it is heading towards an area of coastline slightly to the north of Darwin. The centre should miss us and we may escape with a severe blow. Cyclone warnings are running every fifteen minutes on the radio, and these recommend that water be stored in case mains fail.  There are four large caravan parks here, and it not is a pleasant night for them. We have good solid buildings here at St John’s and so we ought to be safe. I noticed shop assistants huge crisscrossed of tape over windows this afternoon, this was the first indication I had that the cyclone was heading in the direction of Darwin. Apparently this taping helps prevent scattering.  Perhaps we should be doing the same here at St John’s

10.30 pm I’ve spent the last two hours with Fr Donely working on next year’s programme for teachers and classes. The wind has picked up a lot and is now howling outside. Power lines are down in some areas as the power is off. However the cyclone is expected to be about 100 miles from Darwin at 6am in the morning, so the worst is still to come unless it changes course.

tyson donnelly

11.30 pm The wind has wiped of the wire screen from my room, and I’ve just rescued it from a tree. The power has gone for good and I am writing this by torch light. Br Barrett and I are about to leave for Nightcliff for midnight Mass there. The radio reports now indicate that the cyclone is only 22 miles away.

1.15am Brother Barrett (82) and I set out for Nightcliff at 11.30pm. The rain was so heavy we could make out the road. We were following a truck which was proceeding at about 15 mph. Along Bagot road the truck stopped so we did likewise. Suddenly a huge shower of sparks leapt across the road – a line was down. I immediately told Bro Barrett that we must return. Along with a number of cars we drove down the median strip of the six lane highway. Once back at St John’s we said Mass by candlelight; just Bro Barrett and self. The gale meanwhile raged outside.

            As I sit here at my desk I can see the almost constant flashing of blue lighting, rather eerie because the thunder can’t be heard, perhaps because the noise of the wind is making. The rain is very heavy, the wind is getting worse I’m wondering whether the doors of my room will hold, as they are bending with the gusts. The wind seems to clutch at the doors and louvers and even to shake the building, although it is brick. I have now managed to nail up the weaken door.

            The radio reports the cyclone is now about 18miles from Darwin, and moving about directly onto the city with wind gusts to 100mph. Even as I write another report is coming through that roofing is blowing around on the road about 500 yards from St John’s; I hope it is not ours.

cyclone tracy 1

1.45pm the wind is shocking and making a terrible noise. I’m afraid that the louvers will blow out of our rooms, as the aluminium frame is bending with the gusts. The tree outside are swirling madly in the wind, and are clearly visible in the almost constant lighting. I’m about to go downstairs and check on Bro Barrett.

2.30pm I’ve just been around the buildings and all seems to be intact. The wind is so strong that one is forced to wait for a lull before dashing between buildings. The wall of louvers in my room is now barricaded with furniture, as I feared otherwise it would not hold. Of the six rooms upstairs I think mine is the only one occupied ## the lighting is a reddish blue or violet, and the gusts so strong that they would easily blow a man off his feet. St John’s I situated beside the Botanic Gardens, and a carpet of chipped up leaves has appeared on the stairs; more is being splattered on the windows or being forced under the doors. The water is coming into my room through the roof, not dripping but pouring in through the cracks.

## I later discovered that two of the rooms were occupied. Frs. Donely and Collins had returned about 1am (The next paragraph was added by John Pye - John Pye spent the night in the cupboard. All had left in the Cathedral as it started to disengaged. Falling louvers and shattered glass was raining down. The nearness of death was causing them to go to confession. )

john pye

There had been no electric power since before midnight, and I am writing by torchlight. The wind is getting worse; it is pounding the doors and louvers fearfully. The noise is alarming. I can hear what sounds like galvanised iron ripping off the roof. I’d better check on Br. Barrett downstairs.

3 am I have just been down to Br. Barrett’s room, and although two pieces of twisted roofing iron are jammed between his room and the chapel, and a tree outside his room has been uprooted, he is sleeping peacefully. That possibly be my last trip outside, as moving about in the gale is very difficult and dangerous, and rather unnerving.

            The roaring of the wind is very similar to the deep throated roar of jet planes overhead. The gusts are frightful; as I write this the table is moving; in fact the whole building is wobbling. I’m sure a lot of damage must be taking place in Darwin now. Both radio stations operating on emergency power were to continue operating all night, but both have suddenly ceased; this means either the buildings or the aerials have been damaged.

            On the last trip down stairs I could hear the poor old cat howling in the living room, but I wasn’t prepared to go in and rescue him. This desk is rally rocking. I can hear more iron ripping of somewhere.

3.40 am The wind, much to my surprise has almost died away, which probably means we are close to the eye, as the eye is the calm. The wind has changed from East to Southwest, and even as I write the gusts seem to be building up again. I fear we are ‘for it’ again, but I hope not.

cyclone swirl

4.45 am   According to the Barometer the centre of the cyclone has passed. I’ve been keeping a record of barometer readings since midday Christmas Eve. I took the opportunity to go to bed during the relative calm of the eye, but suddenly jumped up again because of the great roar as the wind descended on us once again. It seems worse that before if that is possible. The noise is coming from everywhere; the louvers are clattering so much I expect them to shatter at any moment. The water is pouring through the ceiling. I’m sitting on my bed in the only dry corner of my room trying to write. The wind is so bad it would be impossible to leave this room even if the building began to fail. I just wonder what is happening to some of the houses; the people in caravans would be in a worse state.

            A quick look through the door reveals pieces of shiny debris flashing past in the torch light only feet away –possibly the tin slates of our veranda shade. It would be unsafe to go out. The whole building lurches in the wind gusts even though it is brick; I hope it doesn’t break up.

cyclone 4


            I went to sleep sometime after 5am as the elements quietened down somewhat, and rose this very moment; the damage outside looks appalling.

8 am   Fr Donely and I have just been on a brief tour of St John’s. The lawns are covered in rubble and trees torn out. In the primary classrooms the banks of louvers have almost been torn out, glass and rubble everywhere. The text book room and part of the teacher’s common-room has been unroofed. Our living room has lost three of the large glass doors. The wind swirling around inside has sucked books and magazines from shelves and left them in a sodden heap in the middle of the room. Br McGrath’s car, which I left in the open last night has moved about 30 feet and is jammed between two buildings.

5.30 pm   What an extraordinary day. No water, no electricity, a slice of Christmas ham for breakfast, washed down with rainwater. We ate standing up, the wet chairs and tables, and the cold wind blowing through the broken doors dampened our desire to sit down.

            Fr Madden drove in during breakfast looking rather half drowned. He’d been attempting his Mass centre at Wagaman, but found the road blocked with debris. We went with him to see the Cathedral and Presbytery, and to try to salvage some of his possessions, and see the Bishop and others residing there. We saw incredible destruction everywhere, power lines, and trees and overturned cars blocking the road. The Presbytery appeared to be a write off with some walls gone, and no roof or ceiling. On the top floor books, records, clothing, furniture and broken glass lay strewn everywhere. The Bishop and the other priests ran downstairs as the top began to breakup; these men have lost about of their personal belongings.

            The Botanical Gardens appear to have been devastated, with many trees completely uprooted, and the remainder stripped of leaves and smaller limbs. The trees looked as if they had been blasted by some great explosion.

2.30am Boxing Day

            I’ve been woken from my sleep by a severe tropical storm.  We are comfortable here at St John’s with only a few leaky roofs, but what are the people doing who have no building to shelter in. One house in a hundred might still have a roof, and about half have some of their walls still standing. Some families are already staying here at St John’s e.g. Noel Ross with a family of 13, Bill Roe with 7 and Bill Budd and his family, which included his mother-in-law, sheltered under a not so large table as the house began to break up. By morning the house was almost totally destroyed. In the morning they crawled out expecting to be able to find shelter in the neighbour’s house but were amazed to find the whole street a scene of complete devastation.

            Yesterday Fr Donely and I drove through Darwin’s suburbs, looking for some of the people we knew. The scene was one of awful and complete destruction. It looked like the effect of a nuclear explosion. Not a blade of green to be seen on the trees, huge steel poles bent or broken off at ground level, electrical cable dangling everywhere, roofing iron bent and crushed and twisted around poles; but worse of all the destruction of homes!  How could humans survive in them! In some streets every house a jumbled wrecks!  Forth thousand are now without electricity, water (and therefore without toilets) and most have not even a home. It is a miracle that so far so few were killed. Obviously cars cannot survive like humans, as everywhere there were cars crushed by trees, poles, speared by timber or rolled over.

            The Civil Defence had moved in at first light Christmas morning to clear the roads, to allow ambulances teams into rescue the injured, (and in some cases the dead). People crowded into High Schools looking for shelter.

cyclone tracy aftermath

            St John’s is one of the least damaged buildings in Darwin. The old house at Nightcliff, called the “Ranch” was demolished. It stood in a setting of beautiful trees. Many of the trees finished up across the remains of the house.  Fr Pat O’Carrigan lost many of his paintings in the old House.

            The Nightcliff Convent is a complete wreck. The sisters on the top floor saw their windows go, and then their roof and they ran downstairs as the walls collapsed and blew away. They sheltered underneath, but even there was far from safe.

St Paul’s school at Nightcliff is missing most of the roofing, and has been extensively damaged by wind and water. The St Paul’s Presbytery had brick walls blown out both ends, and all louvers gone. Only a few tattered remains of Fr Ed Travers belongings were left. Frs. Summerhayes and Travers ran to the Church for better protection as the eye passed over. The Church was extensively damaged with all the doors and windows broken and a lot of rubble falling from the ceiling.  Fr. Donely and I called in on the Barber family on Christmas afternoon. The Barber did a lot of fund-raising for St John’s during the year. The whole of the upstairs of their house had blown away, or just collapsed. During the storm they sheltered in the remains of the bath-room. I crawled through the wreckage to where they sheltered, and I was amazed that they escaped alive; in fact they escaped without a scratch.

10.00 pm Boxing Day

            I spent the morning cleaning up the debris in the  Dormitory, assigning families to rooms in St John’s and giving out mattresses and blankets where needed. The families slept on the floor and subsisted on cold meat and water (from tins) St John’s at this stage was probably the only place in Darwin with running water (by an accident of history we are connected to the pumping main, instead to the distributing main) Fr. Donely organised accommodation for all the local priests and religious, and commenced operation St John’s as an accommodation centre. In the afternoon I drove around calling on people we knew inviting them to St John’s. The Civil Defence left large amounts of tinned food at St John’s, which is a great help for the people who have nothing.

joe kelly

# the above is an extract taken from my diary # J.T. Kelly MSC

      cyclone tracy paper