It was a miracle fewer than 100 people died from a population of nearly 40,000 when Cyclone Tracy barreled into Darwin on Christmas eve in 1974.
As Cyclone Debbie today bears down on the northern Queensland coast, many people are remembering with horror the damage which can be unleashed by these furies of nature.
Forecasters are desperately keeping tabs on Debbie’s movements and potential for devastation, with growing parallels with TC Tracy.
As seems increasingly likely with TC Debbie, TC Tracy was a category four system when it made landfall on the northern coast, a direct hit on Darwin.
Little was known about these low pressure storms back then, other than they were called typhoons or hurricanes in other parts of the world.
Over Christmas eve and into Christmas day, the nation’s worst ever cyclone in terms of death and damage, killed 71 people and caused $837 million in damage 43 years ago.
In today’s dollars, the damage estimate is more than $7 billion.
TC Tracy flattened Darwin, destroying more than 70 per cent of the city’s buildings, including 80 per cent of its houses.
At its height, after all scientific measuring instruments failed, wind gusts from Tracy were believed to have surpassed 240 kilometres per hour.
It was the second time Darwin had been destroyed, Japanese air raids repeatedly belted the nation’s northernmost capital during World War II.
More than 30,000 people were evacuated from Darwin after TC Tracy, many of them here to Katherine.
About 10,000 stunned residents traveled south to safety, some trying to reach Adelaide and the southern coast.
Most stopped at evacuation centres set up in Katherine but some kept going, never looking back.
Other evacuation centres were set up in Mount Isa, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs and Kununurra.
Katherine people opened their houses without question, sometimes unexpectedly in the middle of the night.
The Stuart Highway was clogged with a steady convoy of suspect vehicles trying to get as far away from Darwin as possible, many only made it as far as Katherine.
“When the evacuation first started I doubt that anyone would have had any comprehension of the number of shattered people we would be required to provide for.”- wrote a Katherine emergency official
Most never returned to Darwin.
An unprepared Federal Government supplied some food and petrol but it was up to local citizens to feed, clothe, bed and bathe these people before sending them on their way.
Emergency kitchens were organised in Katherine as the evacuees, complete strangers, were billeted in the outback town.
Most were sent to the Tindal RAAF Base where temporary accommodation was provided and hot meals were available along with showers.
The government provided $31 per week for singles and $51.50 per couple for those forced to billet in Katherine. An allowance of $5.50 was paid per child.
People heading south, or trying to return to Darwin, were required to have tetanus and typhoid shots.
Members of the Katherine Red Cross operated a tracing service for people trying to locate friends and family from Darwin.
Like Katherine, which was devastated by flood in 1998, it was years before Darwin’s population reached pre-1974 levels.
New building construction standards along with better cyclone warning and preparation procedures, which came into force after TC Tracy, provide Top End and Darwin residents with increased security today.