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After the storm: How cyclone Tracy made meteorologists for life

After the storm: How cyclone Tracy made meteorologists for life

As Darwin prepares to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Australia’s most famous cyclone, three Bureau forecasters look back on a night that shook up their lives—and left an indelible mark on their careers.

Mark Williams and Greg Bond will never forget the night before Christmas 1974. Like many young bachelors in Darwin at the time, the two meteorologists had spent the early part of the evening at a friend’s party, ushering in the festive season. A few hours later, as the music system was increasingly drowned out by howling winds, they decided they should head back home—‘just to make sure no rain would get in the house’.

‘Our friend who owned the house was away in Adelaide, so we wanted to make sure his home stayed dry,’ recalls Greg Bond. ‘When the first louvre broke in one of the upstairs windows, we put some towels down on the floor… it was very important to us to keep the place dry.

‘We had no idea that within a few hours, there’d be no roof and hardly any walls left.’

Housing damaged by cyclone Tracy, with Bureau staff member Mark Williams behind the bathtub where he sheltered during the cyclone with fellow meteorologist Greg Bond

When cyclone Tracy passed over Darwin 40 years ago, it earned an instant place in Australian meteorological history. As well as the tragic loss of 71 lives and rendering three-quarters of Darwin’s residents homeless, it led to a complete rethinking of how we approach extreme weather—including revolutions in coastal building codes, insurance practices, emergency coordination and disaster preparedness.

For the Bureau of Meteorology, it also had implications that reverberate to this day, laying the foundations for more systematic and robust weather warnings—and for several lifelong careers in severe weather forecasting.

Perhaps the forecaster most influenced by the storm was Greg Holland, whose interest in tropical cyclones remains anchored in the memory of 15 nerve-wracking hours he spent in the Bureau’s 8th floor offices in downtown Darwin. Greg’s descriptions of Tracy’s screaming winds and devastating power—recently recounted in the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Journal—provide a compelling personal account of the passage of Tracy, from one of the world’s foremost authorities in tropical cyclones.

One of the most famous of Greg’s Tracy memories is a photograph he took the morning after the storm, when he went to check how Greg Bond and Mark Williams had fared during the night. ‘We found them wandering around outside a house that had nothing left upstairs, except floorboards, some walls studs and a lonely looking bathtub,’ he says.

In fact, that bathtub had literally saved Greg and Mark’s lives. When the full force of the cyclone hit and the upper walls of the house began collapsing, shortly before 3 am, the pair had taken refuge in a gap that opened up behind the cast-iron tub. For the next four hours, it was their only shelter from one of the world’s most intense storms.

‘We both thought that we may not come out of this,’ says Mark with characteristic understatement. ‘The worst part was the debris flying through the air. Each gust seemed to be full of roofing iron or four-by-fours, and if any of them had hit the bath it probably would have shattered. And that, I think, would have been it for us.’

To this day, Greg and Mark both say they were lucky to survive. The house they were staying in occupied an exposed corner block in Alawa, close to the devastated suburbs of Nightcliff and Coconut Grove, where hardly a single house was left standing.

Returning to the scene

During the cyclone, Greg Bond had been struck by a flying piece of hardwood, which fractured his foot. This was compounded when he trod on a nail the following morning, the two wounds eventually requiring him to be airlifted to Brisbane for treatment. But you can’t keep a good meteorologist down—and a few weeks later Greg was back at his post in Darwin.

Mark had also headed south to visit his parents in Adelaide, but after a few weeks returned to help the Bureau resume the aviation forecasting that was so vital to Darwin’s reconstruction. The young forecaster wound up staying in Darwin until 1982, developing a keen interest in the dynamics of monsoons and then travelling to the United States to do a Master’s degree focussing on the behaviour of tropical clouds and rain systems.

Mark went on to have a long and illustrious career as a Bureau researcher and trainer, including a stint as manager of our Victoria Regional Office.

Greg Bond left Darwin in 1981 and returned to his native Brisbane, where he continues to monitor severe weather as a forecaster in the aviation industry. Tropical weather has more than taken over the Bond family’s lives. Today Greg’s wife Jan works as a forecaster, while his daughter Stephanie qualified as a meteorologist in 2009 and followed her father’s footsteps to Darwin.

‘I’m pretty sure we’re the only family in Australia with three active meteorologists,’ says Greg with a grin.

Damage in Varney Crescent, Jingilie, from Tracy, near Darwin, Northern Territory, 26 December 1974. Credit: Noel Stair, Bureau of Meteorology

For Greg Holland’s part, that night in Darwin 40 years ago cemented a lifelong career—and fascination—in extreme weather. After co-authoring the first edition of the Australian Tropical Cyclone Forecasting Manual in 1977, he was awarded a government scholarship to undertake a Master’s and then a PhD in Australian cyclones at Colorado State University.

Greg has since divided his time between Australia and the US—working as a senior researcher for the Bureau, where he founded the Mesoscale Meteorology Research Group, and heading up the Earth System Laboratory at Colorado’s world-famous National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

Among a long list of professional affiliations, Greg has chaired the World Meteorological Organization’s Working Group on Tropical Meteorology, and edited its Global Guide to Tropical Cyclone Forecasting—the definitive handbook on cyclone prediction. He is now back in Victoria, working remotely with NCAR and delivering cyclone mitigation advice to governments, airlines, insurance companies and the energy sector.

Although the world has moved on since cyclone Tracy, it is certain that Australians will never forget the storm that defined our twentieth century. Fortunately for today’s citizens, we now have one of the most efficient and technologically advanced cyclone warning systems in the world.

Yet just as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami awakened people to the devastating power of underwater earthquakes, so too did Tracy change our attitudes—powerfully and permanently—towards tropical cyclones.

‘I still find it amazing that we went out to a party six hours before a tropical cyclone was forecast to arrive,’ says Greg Bond. ‘We certainly wouldn’t do that today.’

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