Archives about Cyclones in the Kimberley and North West

Gerard Foley Tuesday, January 15, 2013 - 12:50

Tropical cyclones have occurred in the Kimberley and North West regions of WA for many, many thousands of years. The official records about cyclones in these areas appear with the arrival of European settlement in the mid to late 19th century. In the State Archives the earliest information about cyclones in the Kimberley can be found in the records of the Kimberley Resident Magistrate, and sometimes quite detailed accounts are to be found in Police records from the 1880s onward. Often information about cyclones is not obvious in these records, because quite often they are described in other terms, such as ‘severe’ storms or gales. They are also described as “Blows” and "Willy Willies". The records of cyclones are also sometimes located in unexpected places, such as Police records.

A detailed early account of the effects of a cyclone can be found in the journal of Police Constable John zum Felde (Regimental No. 330) patrolling from Brome to Beagle Bay and Cygnet Bay from 12 February to 17 March 1900. Accompanied by his 'Native Assistant' Bobby, and four police horses named in the journal (Ganges, Jute, Khiva and Jesse), it takes him ten days to travel from Broome to Beagle Bay, usually travelling in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the extreme heat. On reaching the mission at Beagle Bay the "Father in charge" tells him of a severe gale on 7 February 1900 which blew down buildings on the mission and severely damaged "their Banana plantations". The 'Father' also reports that "great damage was done to shipping at Cygnet Bay". Travelling to Cygnet Bay he reports on the loss and damage done to various pearling luggers and schooners, interviewing various ship masters and owners. Loss of life is not reported.

In the 1920s, we begin to find specific records that detail the effects of particular cyclones. A 1921 Colonial Secretary's Office file titled "Cyclone North West Coast - Reports Regarding" details damage done by cyclones that have occurred in Shark Bay and King Sound, stating that “for some weeks the weather has been dangerous and a Willy Willy was predicted for Friday between Derby and Broome”. It reports damage done to infrastructure, “communications are disrupted”, and the loss of schooners between Koepang (Indonesia) and the WA coast. Another file from the1920s about the "establishment of a relief boat in the northern waters" reveals discussions between the the WA and Commonwealth Governments for “a suitable vessel to be stationed in Northern Waters during the cyclone season to be used for relief purposes in emergency”. This did not eventuate. In January 1926 a report was made by the Pearling Inspector Mr Stuart of a cyclone north of Broome showing that the wind speed was recorded as 120 miles per hour, 1000 telegraph lines down and 4000 pounds damage to shipping. The wind force is recorded as causing the "pindan country" to turn brown, all the foliage dead, etc.  

In 1935 a very severe cyclone is recorded affecting both Broome and Derby, causing major loss of life and which almost destroyed the pearling industry. A file titled "Relief to Pearling Industry" starts with telegram to Mr Coverley MLA at  Parliament House from Broome Pearlers Committee reporting that the cyclone had caused the loss of  140 lives, 21 boats lost, and that "loss to (pearling) industry is 37,000 pounds". Most of the pearling fleet has been destroyed off the Lacepede Islands and the file records the relief effort and compensation payments to pearlers to get the industry back on its feet again.

From the 1950s authorities began to discuss the need for "Nor-West  Cyclonic Type" houses and a State Housing Commission file shows that by the late 1950s these are being erected in the North West and Kimberley, the file detailing building specifications. In 1963, with the construction of the town of Kununnurra being imminent, and where land was specifically set aside for a butcher shop, service station, hotel, ‘commercial sites’ and ‘residential only’ sites, the need for improved building standards, with a view to ensuring some sort of "cyclonic protection" was deemed paramount. A North West Department file on "Buildings in the North West - Resistance to Cyclones" details, surveys and discussions between State government agencies and local governments to ensure buildings with-stand cyclonic winds and rain. 

So the State Archives reveal the change in the attitudes of the authorities, and in society, since the 19th century, from an almost fatalistic approach to cyclones in the North West and Kimberley regions, simply recording their arrival and sometimes very destructive paths, to actively developing relief measures and community awareness, later encouraging and eventually mandating improved building design.