Australian city recalls its Katrina moment

In 1974, Darwin was destroyed by cyclone Tracy and rebuilt in three years by tenacious residents.

It may be at the far end of the globe, but when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans last year, many from Australia's northern port city of Darwin saw the past flash before their eyes.

Like New Orleans, Darwin was abandoned by most of its population of 48,000 for weeks when cyclone Tracy hit on Christmas Eve 1974, leveling 70 percent of its homes.

"That's when I realized that the Pied Piper of Hamelin had done a terrible thing – to remove all children from an entire town. For a town without children is a dead city, and Darwin died for a while," says Dawn Lawrie, a member of Parliament at the time. She stayed on to help with the evacuation.

"When the people started coming back and all the children came back too, I saw adults approaching total strangers and stroking their children's hair and patting them on the cheeks," says Ms. Lawrie. "It was a sign, perhaps, that things were normalizing."

The resilience of Darwin's residents offers some lessons for those in New Orleans hoping to revive their own wrecked city.

For starters: The naysayers aren't always right. When Tracy struck, Darwin had already been destroyed three times by storms and Japanese bombers during World War II. But the idea of abandoning Darwin was scuttled after residents stubbornly returned with a new consciousness about the need to preserve its fragile heritage.

"In New Orleans, you find that no one really wants to consider moving elsewhere, just as [residents] abandoned plans to rebuild Darwin at another place," says Mickey Dewar, the curator of an exhibition on cyclone Tracy at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.

"I was contacted by a curator of a Louisiana museum who is putting together an exhibition on Katrina," adds Ms. Dewar. "And during my conversation with her, I was struck by an old and powerful association with a place that people develop quite quickly, but which is quite often left unacknowledged."

When Tracy hit, saws Lawrie, Darwin had no emergency response system. A "terrible system of permits to let people back into the city" was introduced and lasted a few months, she says. "People were only allowed back in if their homes could be labeled livable. So many of these folks just began giving the same address, like 27 Smith Street, where everyone knew the house was still mostly intact, just to be able to return, even if their own homes were in shambles."

As Darwin residents got back on their feet, their can-do spirit spilled over into government reform. Before the storm, the city had been administered by civil servants known derisively as "long soxers" who typically stayed in Darwin for little more than two years at a time. After the storm, they left permanently, and locals stepped up.

In the following years, Australia gave self- governance to the Northern Territory, a state the size of France, Spain, and Italy combined. Thus, according to some people, Tracy served as a catalyst to "normalize" Darwin. Its 70,000 residents now refer to their city's history with the terms BT (before Tracy) and AT (after Tracy).

Another lesson learned in Darwin was to be wary of urban legends spawned in the midst of the upheaval and confusion of the event.

"During cyclone Tracy, there were acts of violence that occurred, and it was said that women were even raped," says Dewar. "This was all blamed on one ethnic community that I won't mention here simply because most of it turned out to be untrue.

"As events after Katrina unfolded, I saw that the same things were happening there, and some of the same myths were being perpetrated," she says.

One year later, parts of New Orleans remain in ruins. It took the much smaller city of Darwin about three years to rebuild and attract back most of its long-term residents.

A walk through Darwin today reveals little of the past. The parliament house, which lost its roof in the cyclone, is a new building that residents refer to as the Wedding Cake. Skyscrapers are burgeoning. The cyclone's mark can be still seen in a few homes in the suburbs that were built in concrete with tiny windows to withstand storms. These are now referred to as "Tracy trauma homes."

The bunkerlike attitude quickly yielded to new environmentally friendly structures that could withstand Category 4 cyclones like Tracy.

But as the nightmare receded, so did much of the caution – providing a long-term lesson for New Orleans. Historian David Carment of Charles Darwin University says that the city council has resumed building homes in the surge areas, which are at sea level and in danger of flooding during a big storm.

"With climate change, we can expect stronger and stronger storms," he says, adding that "a recent Category 5 cyclone that bypassed Darwin is evidence that the building codes will no longer be adequate. Combined with the weathering of the buildings themselves that were built in the 1970s, Darwin is a tragedy waiting to repeat itself."

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