Sunday, 24 August 2014

Winds of Change: Sophie Cunningham on Cyclone Tracy

By Jacqueline Lademann

Forgive the cheesy title, but I felt there was no other way to introduce a discussion about this great storm which brought about so much change in so many unexpected ways. In Sophie Cunningham's new book, Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy, much is made of the impact that Cyclone Tracy has had, and the lessons that have been, and are still to be learned from it.

To remind readers who are perhaps too young to remember, or who come from overseas and maybe are not familiar with the story, on 24 December 1974 aka Christmas Eve a cyclone called Tracy swept across Darwin. The next morning while children across the country were waking to open their presents, the people of Darwin emerged to find their city simply gone.

It was not the first nor the last disaster to impact on part of this nation. Indeed from droughts, to fires, cyclones and floods barely a summer goes by without one community or another suffering from the horror that this country can inflict on its own.

In her book, and also in her talk, Cunningham draws a link between the cyclone at the end of 1974 and the turbulent events of 1975. In many ways 1975 was a turning point, and a crucial one for Australia as a nation. In 1975, it was International Women's Year; the Racial Discrimination Act was enacted; the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Bill was introduced into parliament; people were talking about gay rights; the death penalty was abolished... and in November 1975 the Whitlam government was dismissed.

Cunningham is keen to stress the danger in overstating the link between Tracy, and what came after, but even if the cyclone didn't specifically contribute to any or all of the drastic changes that occurred in 1975, I think that it became a symbol of the time and of what came afterwards. Australia is many senses grew up that year. After all, once people get their collective heads around the idea that something so awful could happen on Christmas Eve, a certain innocence and naivety are lost.

However, that said, Australians still approach most major disasters with a "She'll be Right" attitude. This can be helpful in the immediacy of a crisis, but less so as time goes on; in the long term stoicism comes at a cost that we haven't come to terms with yet. Time and time again, we have seen how ordinary Australians respond extraordinarily well in a crisis. Reading the way those on the ground handled the immediate aftermath of the storm, I think that on balance they did a remarkable job. Mistakes were made, certainly, and with the benefit of hindsight it's perhaps obvious that the mass evacuation of people, women and children in particular, was not the best idea, and caused trauma and problems of its own. However, I don't know whether others in the same circumstances would have done any different. Given the size and scale of the devastation the survivors of Tracy would have faced significant issues down the track whether they were evacuated or not.

When it came to question time, one gentleman in the crowd stood up and told the room that he was a survivor of Cyclone Tracy. He said that he had been three years-old at the time, and that Cunningham's book closely captured the experience as he remembers it. He told us what it was like to be evacuated. He shared his experience of returning to Darwin and how Cyclone Tracy in one way or another had an "impact on his childhood, his adolescence and even now". He said that the memories of Tracy are still very raw with people, and that there are those like his own father, who still cannot talk about what happened.

One of the great lessons, we can still learn from that one man's experience of Tracy is how we handle crisis in the medium and long term. After the initial weeks, months, or the first year or two of an event such as a cyclone the world moves on and hardly thinks of it anymore. But for those who lived through the experience, for that man and many others, it is often something that permanently affects them and their lives.

1 comment:

  1. I must confess I've not heard about Cyclone Tracy. I would have been two years old, still residing in my ancestral crib in Malaysia. I hope though that my children will study this past tragedy in school. Is Cyclone Tracy mentioned in textbooks at all? Thanks for sharing your review Jacqueline. I certainly enjoyed the history lessons :-)


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