As a person with hearing loss, there are many sounds I’d love to hear well again, like the sibilant ‘s’ and Christmas bells. There are other sounds that I’m happy not to hear well any more – a person blowing their nose, comes to mind, or a cat expelling a fur ball.
But the sound I hope never to hear again is that of a cyclone roaring around me, as it did on Christmas Day, 1974.
I was 20 years old and for the past six months I’d been living in the northern tropical town of Darwin, Australia, sharing a house with young Australians, working and having the time of my life.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, I got up to the news: “There’s another cyclone coming.” But our group, like most Darwin residents, didn’t take the warning too seriously because three weeks prior a threatened cyclone never came near us. Besides, it was Christmas!
We were preparing for a big feast for next day’s Christmas dinner, including a huge batch of home-baked fruitcake. On the coffee table in the lounge (living) room, someone decorated a tiny Christmas tree with bits of tinsel and a couple of the guys did some basic cyclone preparations, including filling up the bathtub with drinking water. I listened to a cassette of Christmas greetings from my family and friends back home. I didn’t yet have hearing aids, so my Aussie friends listened with me, helping me with some words I just couldn’t ‘get’ from the inexpensive cassette player. Hearing my family’s voices translated into Aussie accents was hysterical, but this would be our last big laugh for a while.
That evening, a party at a club outside of town was cut short when the wind blew out the windows. People left the building screaming, realizing that this time, the cyclone was not going to pass us by. It was a terrifying six-mile drive home, as we struggled to keep a mini moke (light open jeep) on the road in the increasingly violent storm.
Around midnight, standing inside our sliding glass front doors, we saw the roof rip away from the guesthouse across the street, hurling up into the blackness. As the residents poured out, we formed a rope-and-human chain to pull them into our house, expanding our group of eight into a crowd of 20, including children. As we dried off and tried to calm down, the fruitcake became our loaves and fishes, feeding everyone. Then, as I leaned on the glass door, it suddenly buckled inwards, throwing me across the room – our final warning.
Crowding into the bedroom hallway, we barricaded ourselves from the lounge room with upright mattresses, as a barrier against flying glass. Following radio instructions given earlier in the day, we opened bedroom windows on one side of the house and closed them on the other side, which would hopefully keep the house from being crushed by the cyclone’s pressure system.
Then we huddled, cramped and hot, in the hallway for over six hours as Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin, killing 71 people and destroying 80% of the town’s homes. And, although I was not yet wearing hearing aids, my hearing loss didn’t spare me from its terrifying sounds.
The constant, deafening roar. People chattering nervously, telling each other it’s going to be OK. The shattering glass, the sound of our own roof ripping off (above the lounge room, mostly, but polluting our bathtub water with crud). The thunderous impact of something crashing into the house, shaking it so intensely that water ran down the walls and down our backs.
Then, the noise stopped. “Is it all over, mum?” asked a child.
We were in the eye of the storm and the complete absence of sound seemed louder and more terrifying than before, because we knew we were only halfway through. We closed the open windows, and opened the ones on the other side. And, then after 35 long minutes, came the sound that no one would forget – the jet plane, locomotive sound of the second wind as it rushed back after the eye passed over. Later, we learned that Tracy’s recorded wind speeds reached 217 kmh (134 mph) before the equipment itself was blown way; some estimates put the maximum speed at almost 186 mph!
An eerie audio recording of the storm was taken by Ted Collins, a priest, who endured a long solo refuge after attending midnight mass. Not sure if he would make it through the night ‘because of the noise, and the shaking, and the roaring,’ he figured that the recording, if found, might prove useful. It’s now held in several Australian museums.
At 7 am, it was over. We lowered the mattresses to find a shattered roof and a lounge room awash in glass, debris and water. And beside the house lay the cause of the terrifying crash – a Winnebago that had hurled through the air from across the street. But – and here’s one of those amazing-but-true “awww” moments – on the coffee table sat the wee Christmas tree, unravaged, perfect and shiny. We could only exhale in awe, with an ineloquent “oh, wow.””
Over the next week, Australia and the world came to our rescue. The radio was our lifeline, and my friends made sure I understood what I could not hear from the incessant broadcasts. And, in the dark of the long evenings without electricity and just a few precious candles, they took turns sitting and sleeping next to me so that I would feel safe and connected.
On the 29th of December, I sobbed as my friends piled into a van to go ‘down the track’ to Alice Springs and home to other parts of Australia. I had chosen to be airlifted out of Darwin, one of 26,000 people evacuated over five days. Throughout the night at the high school evacuation centre, people’s names were called over a PA system, notifying them to board a bus for the airport. In the chaos, I could not hear and I waited, exhausted. Finally I approached a member of the armed forces guarding the school – “Please, I’m hard of hearing and I don’t know what’s going on. Help me.” The next morning, I was on a plane to Adelaide and two weeks later, I arrived home to my frantic family in Canada.
There are so many stories to tell about Cyclone Tracy, amazing stories of bravery and kindness and, to this day, it’s still the story of my most memorable Christmas, ever.