Wilda, I’ll never forget you
Pacific typhoons, past and present
If the departed Mangkhut was your first typhoon experience on Guam or Saipan, I suggest you’ve got a lot to learn if you stick around in typhoon alley. (If you’re on Rota which took the direct hit this time, different story.) Mangkhut, as it affected Guam and Saipan, was what old timers refer to derisively as a ‘banana typhoon.’ It knocks down the fragile trees and causes a lot of flooding. The damage is largely limited to tin houses and outdoor signs. And then, typically, it goes on to build up and trash the Philippines and Japan.
My own first typhoon experience was on Okinawa in 1968, where I was stationed in the Army. That blow lasted three days and defined typhoons for me. I’ve got vivid memories of being awakened for duty and stepping out of bed into a couple of feet of water blown under the storm doors of the barracks. We were told that the wind gauge broke at about 128 knots, but when I and a couple of other soldiers caught a cab to our off-base residence, we were surprised by the relative lack of damage. Like an American military base, Okinawa was pretty hardened, accepting an occasional serious typhoon as a given.
Living for many years on Guam and then Saipan, there have been a lot of typhoons, super-typhoons and near misses. On Guam we hoped the storm would go north. On Saipan we hoped the storm would go south. In the aftermath, there was usually the search for ice to keep the beer cold, since there wasn’t much else to do. All those canned goods that we’re to this day urged to stock up on gathered dust as we ate the barbecue produced by neighbors as the meat in their freezers melted. I don’t recall ever going hungry, though weeks without running water or power gets tiresome long before these things get restored.
Super-typhoon Wilda in 1994 on Saipan was different for me because for the first time, as CNMI Governor Froilan Cruz Tenorio’s public information officer, I had legal responsibilities to fulfill, some other than just dealing with the local media. One of these was figuring out what to do with a herd of FEMA officials who arrived very early. We farmed them out to various barbecue parties, since there wasn’t much for them to do yet. I guess we figured that a well fed disaster assessor would be more generous to those who had lost houses and other property. As will happen in government, there were lots of meetings which rarely seemed productive. Fortunately, the people of Saipan were out immediately cleaning up the mess without any pressure to do so from Capital Hill.
I will never forgive Wilda for trashing my favorite dining spot at the time, the Ship-a-Shore restaurant, a converted ferry boat tied up off Garapan.
I spent a lot of official time documenting the storm damage, including the looting of the CNMI Senate building on Beach Road by some of our citizens. Given that one member of the looting party was a senior police officer (out of uniform), I was surprised that there was no pressure to do anything about it afterward.
If you haven’t experienced it, I can assure you that the aftermath of typhoons provides a great opportunity of the kind I just mentioned as well as governmental malfeasance. Back then a chunk of cash was released to civil defense personnel just prior to typhoons. During one pre-Wilda typhoon, a couple of reliable witnesses informed me that the cash went for many cases of Budweiser, which were hauled into the CD HQ at the old Coast Guard station in San Antonio. While the disaster folks were busy telling everyone else to stay dry, they definitely had the supplies to wet their whistles. I wish I would have had a TV camera there to document this exercise of civic duties.