Members Rally after Darwin Disaster

    “Members Rally after Darwin Disaster,” Ensign, Apr. 1975, 76–77

    Members Rally after Darwin Disaster

    Normally Christmas brings high temperatures in the northern territory of Australia where Darwin is located. But last Christmas it was fiercely wet and windy as Cyclone Tracy tore through the city, nearly destroying it and killing at least 50 persons.

    Members of the Darwin Branch had just returned from caroling together when the full impact of the storm hit. Some spent the rest of the night with neighbors; others moved from room to room as their homes were torn apart. Several families reported huddling together and singing hymns during the storm.

    The next morning, a survey of damage showed that although most members had lost their homes, injuries were minor and the chapel had suffered comparatively little damage. There followed a couple of days of worry for Australia Adelaide Mission President Allen M. Swan, but finally the district leader telegraphed him that all was well. It was later discovered that one young member, 12-year-old Ian Heron, had died.

    “We feel that we would have been lost without our religion,” said Sister Moodie, wife of Robert G. Moodie, then a counselor in the district presidency. “We relied on prayer. The only fear we had was when the wall of our house blew down and I feared for the safety of the children. We feel that we were in the hands of the Lord.” Sister Chris Fejo, a 20-year-old district missionary, agrees. “I have a stronger testimony than ever that I should serve a full-time mission,” she said. “I would like other people to have the same fortification in the face of disaster as I had.”

    Many faith-promoting incidents occurred during the disaster. A young member girl left her bed just moments before a tree crashed through the roof and onto the bed. When Sister Battye, wife of Darwin Branch President John Battye, returned to her home, she was relieved to discover that among the few items she could salvage were the family Bible and her genealogy records.

    Many of the homeless residents gathered in school buildings that were still intact. Pat Whitnal, a member of the Church from Arizona, took charge of the group at one of these schools, overseeing the welfare of thousands. The Moodie and Fejo families donated supplies from their food storage, which was picked out of the rubble. District President Ken Kerr donated $300 worth of meat he had stored.

    Evacuation began almost immediately; half the population of the city had left within only four days after the cyclone. President Battye, who was in Adelaide for the holidays when the cyclone hit, met every evacuation plane from Darwin. Many Church members in other parts of Australia took in the Darwin victims. Australia Adelaide Mission President Swan paid special tribute to the Saints in Alice Springs. Besides meeting planes and befriending evacuees, they sent supplies and scarce items into Darwin, all under the direction of Alice Springs Branch President N. Bruce Pehrson.

    The six elders serving in Darwin at the time of the cyclone were transferred almost immediately to other parts of the mission, leaving the work there to the district missionaries until the city is rebuilt. Both the branch and district presidents have made their homes elsewhere, and Robert G. Moodie has been sustained as branch president, with the responsibility of keeping the remaining Saints organized. Meetings have been held regularly since the disaster, but at present there are only 25 attenders left in the city, whereas 125 attended meetings before.

    A few weeks after the cyclone, the Saints of Darwin met with President and Sister Swan outside the chapel under the light of the stars, since there was no electricity. President Swan reports that the remaining members “indicated their great desire to stay there and rebuild the Church and the community.”

    Darwin Branch President John Battye’s home after the cyclone.

    The Darwin chapel survived the storm mostly intact. Damage was estimated at $25,000.