Wilda and Zelda and Rita
Saipan — The Mariana Islands are right smack in the middle of typhoon alley. According to the Weather Channel, 41 super typhoons were recorded in the area between 2000 and 2014 alone, compared to 12 of similar strength in the Atlantic Basin. Typhoon Soudelor hit Saipan in August 2015. Typhoon season in the islands runs from July to January.
The first time I experienced the wrath of the Pacific on Saipan was in 1994. Just before the year ended, two typhoons, one after the other, passed by the island: Wilda and Zelda. Back in the day, typhoons were still statesiders: Karen, Jean, Pamela. Now they’re Asians: Mamasang, YouBuyMeDrink, MeLoveYouLongTime.
I was born and raised in Metro Manila so when I arrived on Saipan, I had already survived many typhoons. One of my earliest childhood memories involved my mother telling me that we were at that moment experiencing a typhoon. I was four years old. It was daytime but it was dark. And it was raining hard. It was as if there was a giant Tonka dump truck outside our concrete house, unloading nails on our tin roof.
My childhood was one typhoon after the other, usually beginning in July. And they had Filipino names with hard consonants and harder vowels like Didang (“Dee-dang”) or Yoling (Yoh-leeng”). Our weather bureau apparently believed that no one among us would take seriously an American typhoon. “Please take precautionary measures. Lauren is expected to make landfall later today.” Lauren? Sounds like a husky-voiced, blonde bombshell from Hollywood. In contrast, a typhoon called “Simang” (pronounced Seemang) would certainly put the fear of Jesus, Joseph and Mary in all of us.
But I still remember fondly Wilda and Zelda. They dropped by the Northern Marianas one week apart, on a Thursday, the busiest day for newspapers on island. There was, of course, no question about publishing an edition for Friday, Armageddon or not. We had to and we did. And although there was no power for a few days, the radio stations on island provided round-the-clock typhoon bulletins.
“After being on Saipan for more than four months,” reporter Tom Bauer wrote, “I thought I had seen everything. Floods, constant political fights, a man paying his $238 utility bill in quarters and a guy who claims to be from outer space all seem to be part of a daily routine…”
There was a time — so unthinkable now — when typhoons traveled faster than the news.
In Marianas Variety’s Oct. 27. 1978 issue, intrepid reporter Tom Bauer filed the following report:
“After being on Saipan for more than four months,” he wrote, “I thought I had seen everything. Floods, constant political fights, a man paying his $238 utility bill in quarters and a guy who claims to be from outer space all seem to be part of a daily routine…”
But then he heard that a typhoon was approaching, and Rita was her name.
“Being desert born and raised leaves me with little knowledge of typhoons — or of rain for that matter — so when the governor announced typhoon condition III, visions of the Wizard of Oz danced in my head. I had envisioned my cement house being whisked away to strange land — perhaps Aguigan or Tinian.”
The only source of the “latest” news about the typhoon was the radio. Tom said he spent a “nearly sleepless night waiting for WSZE to give me the latest… information which was eight hours old to begin with.”
But Tom was ready.
“Not being one of the dumb Americans on the island [locals would not be U.S. citizens until November 1986], I had hoarded a can of beer, one can of tuna and a glass of water in my refrigerator. My gas tank was nearly empty but I was certain some foresighted local would have a battery-operated gasoline pump after the power went off.”
As for his house, he said his neighbor boarded it up while he was at work.
“At first I thought it was the work of vandals but another kind neighbor explained that the boards may come in handy if the wind starts to blow about 150 miles an hour. Ducking coconuts, he explained, is best left to someone with more experience.”
By 10 p.m., the island was in condition 2, and Tom was in his “quasi-bunker awaiting what I thought to be the annihilation of all known life in the Northern Marianas.” The radio was playing the Bee Gees — “Staying Alive”?
Near midnight, Tom said he and his friend, another statesider, “figured” that “the only truly wise thing to do would be to record our Last Will and Testament in hopes that the cleanup crew would find it some months later.”
When they learned that Rita was already about 120 miles south of Guam, “panic set in.” Tom said he wasn’t sure “which windows were to be closed and which were to be left open.” His friend made a suggestion “but she had been on Saipan even a shorter time than I, so I ignored her….”
By 2:30 a.m., Tom said “30-mile-an-hour winds were whipping through the village causing untold damage to a world hidden by typhoon boards. Time for prayer.” Panic, he said, eventually gave way to sleep. The sun finally rose and Tom was certain that he didn’t have to work that day for two reasons: “[F]irst of all I was sure the building was no longer standing and, secondly, it seemed only obvious that my journalistic skills may prove helpful in aiding the victims — I could type any forms that needed filling out.”
But outside, “no trees had fallen, the houses stood, and no one was injured, except for me…when I bumped my head while trying to climb under the bed.”
Zaldy Dandan is editor of Marianas Variety, the NMI’s oldest newspaper.