Cyclone – Paul Bayetto

It was busy in the restaurant that night. Why wouldn’t it be? It was Christmas Eve. Insults and instructions were flying across the room in rapid staccato Italian. “Porca miseria Paulo! Tu idiota, rapido! Portare la lattuga fretta!” Pop yelled at me as I turned steaks on the grill and intermittently tossed my pan fried scaloppine at the same time. I looked at my brother in-law, Tony, quizzically. “ He wants more lettuce Paul! Hurry up! We’re nearly through. Seven dockets to go kid,” he yelled over the din. I jumped. “Now Paul!” I ran into the cold room getting the lettuce and delivering it to Pop’s station as Tony took over mine. Doors swung, plates clattered, Greeks and Italians swore and darted instructions in their own languages as waitresses ran and carried plates, bursting into calm smiles the minute they escaped the bustle of the kitchen to the calm but busy restaurant floor.

I was fifteen, in the first few months of my apprenticeship and had to learn quickly. I had surprised myself and by now was already pretty good. Here, however the pressure never let up. It was always go! The busy Italian restaurant in Darwin’s main street was my last chance. I had been in trouble at school and lost two jobs early in my career, so I was given to family. This was it! The Capri Restaurant in Knuckey Street would make or break me. As it turned out it made me in so many way. It was Christmas Eve, 1974. 

As we left the restaurant the wind was blowing strongly. It had built up while we had been inside dealing with our own culinary cyclone. Nobody had taken the warnings seriously. We had all heard it before, however this was starting to feel different. We jumped into the H.Q. ute that Tony and I had recently resprayed purple, not my choice of colour but I tended do what I was told with Tony. He was a big tough man with a pretty good heart and a quick temper, so yes was always a better option. As we headed down Bagot Road to the suburb of Ludmilla where we lived, the rain pelted on the windscreen. It was already 10.30 p.m. and Cyclone Tracy was beginning to do her thing! We talked little on the way home, tired from our night’s effort, we began our wind down process. As we drove the radio bleated out another cyclone warning and Tony turned the radio up a little. “Looks like we are going to get this one Paulie. Let’s pick up Jim from home and go for a burn. What do you reckon?” I nodded agreement already starting to feel a bit concerned, but not wanting to be left out. Jim was Tony’s best mate and was staying over with his wife Leslie as they sometimes did. We boys often went for a wind down drive or burn after work. It appeared tonight would be no different. The three of us piled into the ute after greetings and “we won’t be long” assurances and headed for the wharf.

Stokes Hill Wharf was a scene of frantic movement with fishermen and boaties trying desperately to get lines off the wharf and head out to sea and ride out the storm. The wind by now was gale force and the rain hit horizontally on the windscreen as we pulled up. Visibility was now seriously affected. “Let’s give these blokes a hand Jim!” declared Tony much to my dismay. Personally I was keen on let’s stay in the car and head off home as an immediate solution. Oh well! Jim, of course concurred so the next thing we were helping boaties get ropes off and me being a skinny kid was finding it hard to keep my footing as Tony and others yelled instructions over the pelting rain and howling wind. Half an hour or so of this nonsense saw us finally in the car and on the way back home battling to see as we headed down Bagot Road. The expression was beginning to change on Tony and Jim’s faces as the reality no doubt hit that this was going to be the real thing.

For the first half of the cyclone things seemed pretty cool. Lots of wind and rain, cups of tea and jovial conversation about “this isn’t too bad, is it?” We played a bit of scrabble and chatted. We followed the cyclone advice on the transistor radio about keeping the windows open on the opposite side of the wind direction to prevent a vortex that would rip the roof off. There was a fair bit of nervousness but it seemed like nothing more than a really bad storm, possibly the worst, but no real problems other than some flooding. Suddenly it stopped. Nothing! No wind ,just steady rain. “The eye,” said Jim.

During the eye of the cyclone Tony and Jim went outside, totally against all advice from authorities and dug trenches around the back of the house to alleviate the flooding at the backdoor. They had been outside for a while when we heard it off in the distance. Wahoom!! Wahoom!! “What the hell is that!?” my sister Jackie exclaimed. “It’s wind!” Tony replied as he and Jim scurried in the back door with shovels still in hand. “It’s gale force gusts this is going to be a bad one!” The noise grew louder and louder as the monster approached us. It began to sound like a jet engine warming up for take-off as it was almost upon us. Fear was on my and the women’s faces. Tony became action man and went into disaster prevention mode. As the louvres slammed shut from the vortex they began to shout instructions over the wind, “Get pots from the kitchen, anything you can and jam them in the steel louvres down the bottom,” he instructed Jackie “You and Paulie get the plywood from under the bed in my room Jim. Let’s move guys!” As the moments past and tension mounted Jackie was standing in the hall of the H- pattern house holding her baby son Daniel. Suddenly without warning Tony grabbed my sister by the arm and pulled her away from the glass louvres in the hall. Seconds later they blew in smashing against the opposite wall and sending large and small shards of glass everywhere up the hall. Jacky with baby, Leslie and I bolted for the kitchen. Jackie was lucky to be uninjured from the hallway louvres and someone suggested praying to which Tony yelled from the hallway, “Paul don’t worry about prayers, bring my bloody shoes from the laundry and get the hell down here and help me now!!” I froze momentarily. Tony was persuasive and his threats of immediate violence caused me to decide that he was scarier than any natural phenomena would be. I did as I was told and ran down the hall with shoes in hand to hold a plywood board firmly against the newly created breezeway in our wall with Jim. We strained against the wind while Tony ran around finding screw guns and anything to fasten said board, and cut bits of wood to jam between it and the opposite wall, thus securing it. We had lost complete track of time and the electricity supply had cut. The whole process took quite a while and by now the roof sheets were flapping at the lounge end of the house. We waited nervously as we expected the roof to begin lifting at any moment. It didn’t! I guess it was around 4 a.m. when we headed down to the end room to try and get some sleep. As we talked nervously and dozed the storm steadily began to subside.

6.30 a.m. saw us all beginning to rise, not that any of us had slept well. We went outside to survey the damage. Our house had sustained a relatively minor amount of damage. Some of our neighbours didn’t fare so well and the sheets of missing iron from their houses that had flown around like missiles during the night now lay strewn everywhere. As we got into the car to drive into town and check out the restaurant, a scene of total devastation struck us and we realized that we and our area had been very lucky. Everywhere people wandered numbly among the devastation, blank faced as they sifted through the wreckage of their lives and possessions. The scene was reminiscent of a major bomb blast. In the northern suburbs particularly, rows upon rows of stilts were all that was left where houses had once been.

In the ensuing days the toll was counted and the damaged assessed. A mass evacuation of nearly three quarters of the population was organised, many, never to return .All essential services were severed. The people of Darwin slowly went back to rebuilding their lives under the guidance of Major General, Alan Stretton, and The Darwin Reconstruction Commission, but again, that’s another story.

Epilogue:

Cyclone Tracy battered the Northern Territory city of Darwin from late on Christmas Eve through to Christmas Day of 1974. It formed over the Arafura Sea on the 21st of December and dissipated on the 26th December. Cyclone Tracy claimed 71 lives and incurred a damage bill of over 800 million dollars. Most buildings could not sustain a cyclone of this magnitude and simply collapsed under the pressure. Building codes were revised after the destruction.

The residents of Darwin were complacent, with many attending Christmas festivities despite the increasing wind and rain. Cyclone Tracy is the most compact cyclone on record in The Australian Basin with winds extending only 48 kilometres from the centre. Wind speed recordings reached 217km/hr at the Darwin Airport until the recording instruments failed. It is estimated that wind speeds reached as 240 k.p.h.

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