Residents of a U.S. territory in the Pacific ravaged by Super Typhoon Yutu are hopeful for help from the federal government as they dig out from damage including crumbled concrete houses, smashed cars and fallen utility poles.
Used to riding out monster storms, about 50,000 people living in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands expect to be without electricity and running water for months after getting slammed by the strongest storm to hit the U.S. this year.
Officials toured villages in Saipan and saw cars crushed under a collapsed garage, the ground ripped clean of vegetation and people injured by spraying glass and other debris. As of today local time, there was one storm-related death confirmed.
A military plane was bringing food, water, tarps and other supplies, U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman David Gervino said.
The agency had significant water and food in place because it had stored more than 220,000 liters of water and 260,000 shelf-stable meals at a distribution center on nearby Guam to prepare for Typhoon Mangkhut, which struck last month.
Mangkhut’s effects turned out to be not as bad as expected, so those supplies are still available.
The agency is focused on helping restore power, opening sea and air ports and ensuring cell towers can operate on emergency power until utility power returns, Gervino said.
One change the agency adopted because of Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm that struck Puerto Rico last year, is it has created task forces to tackle different areas such as transportation, communications, food and water, and energy and fuel.
Federal and territory officials are in constant communication to address each of these areas, Gervino said.
Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, the territory’s delegate to Congress, said residents will need significant help to recover. Colleagues in Congress have offered aid. Sablan expects a presidential disaster declaration to free up resources for storm relief.
“We want people to remember we are Americans and we exist,” local lawmaker Edwin Propst said.
Maximum sustained winds of 180 mph were recorded around the eye of the storm, which passed over the islands of Tinian and Saipan early Thursday, the National Weather Service said.
A 44-year-old woman taking shelter in an abandoned building died when it collapsed in the storm, the governor’s office Facebook page said. Officials couldn’t immediately be reached for additional details.
The territory’s only hospital in Saipan, the most populated island, said it received 133 people in the emergency room Thursday, and three patients had severe injuries that needed surgery.
Residents “were stoic and still smiling and … just thankful to be alive,” said Propst, a member of the territory’s House of Representatives.
Sablan said most of the structures in the southern part of Saipan lost their roofs, and many, including a high school, were “completely destroyed.”
“This damage is just horrendous, it’s going to take months and months for us to recover,” he said by phone.
On the smaller island of Tinian, which took a direct hit, most of the houses were destroyed, and even some concrete ones were reduced to rubble, resident Juanita Mendiola said.
“We had to hide inside the bathroom because the house felt like it was going to blow apart,” she said. “It was literally shaking — a concrete house shaking.”
More than 800 people were in shelter, and space was running out, officials said. Electricity and running water shut down Wednesday, residents said. Cellphone coverage was spotty.
Nadine Deleon Guerrero, a spokeswoman for the territory’s emergency management department, said all of Saipan (population 50,000) and Tinian (population 3,000) islands were without utility power.
Crews were still assessing how long it will take to restore electricity, she said.
Commercial flights won’t be operable for some time, she said. Terminals, the tarmac, runway and equipment all suffered damage.
The U.S. Coast Guard said today that ports in Guam and Rota, an island north of Guam, have been reopened. Ports in Saipan and Tinian will remain closed until they are deemed safe.
The Saipan hospital was running on backup generators but otherwise operating normally, said Esther Lizama Muna, CEO of the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.
A health center on Tinian sustained damage but was operating normally.
Recovery efforts on Saipan and Tinian will be slow, said Brandon Aydlett, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
“This is the worst-case scenario. This is why the building codes in the Marianas are so tough,” he said. “This is going to be the storm which sets the scale for which future storms are compared to.”
HELP FOR VICTIMS
The Salvation Army Hawaiian & Pacific Islands Division on Thursday said it has set up an online donation site to aid emergency response efforts in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the wake of Super Typhoon Yutu. The agency operates corps in Saipan and Guam.
Capt. Micheal Stack, emergency disaster services director for The Salvation Army Hawaiian & Pacific Islands Division, said in an emailed statement that people from both sites have been providing relief and are planning to assess the situation in coming days to determine other needs.
Aid agencies say the best way to help during emergencies is to offer monetary donations, which can go toward a variety of services and supplies. To help, go to hawaii.salvationarmy.org.
— Star-Advertiser staff