In the shadow of Yutu
One year after the catastrophic typhoon, island residents pick up the pieces as the government struggles to revive the economy that remains fragile
Saipan — Anthony S. Manahane and his family moved to their new home in As Perdido last month, one year after Yutu plowed into Saipan and Tinian. The super typhoon left the islands in shambles. “Our house was destroyed by Yutu and it was a hard and traumatic time for us. We lived in a tent for several months,” he said.
After receiving aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a loan from the Small Business Administration, Manahane went N15 Architects to seek help building his home.
Manahane is among the Saipan residents who are rebuilding their lives disrupted by the catastrophic super typhoon.
On Oct. 25, 2018, with winds of 180 mph and gusts up to 220 mph that went on for over six hours, super typhoon Yutu was marked as the strongest storm to ever hit a U.S. territory.
Described as an extremely dangerous Category 5 typhoon, Yutu knocked down utility infrastructure, leaving residents without power and water for several months. Significant damage was also declared on critical infrastructure which includes schools, churches, government offices and airport. Approximately 1,000 were left homeless.
This super typhoon also directly claimed the life of one person, and indirectly—through unventilated use of a power generator—at least one more.
The typhoon aftermath is still felt today — both financially and emotionally. Each weather advisory can cause anxiety. Few things strike fear into NMI residents more than the words “tropical depression forming near Chuuk.” The Northern Marianas is located in the South Pacific Ocean, which is known as a highway for tropical cyclones that produce sustained hurricane force winds of at least 64 knots or 118 km/h.
Yutu made the landfall three years after Saipan was lashed by Soudelor — dubbed “a once in a century storm.” Two typhoons — Hagibis and Bualoi— hit the NMI one after the other, days before the first anniversary of Yutu. President Donald Trump approved the CNMI’s requests for emergency declaration for the two recent typhoons, aware of the islands’ fragile condition.
Notwithstanding the trauma of the super typhoon, the CNMI residents continue to pick up the pieces, take valuable lessons from the disaster and explore newfound opportunities.
Over the years, N15 Architects had been known for building offices and commercial structures. Yutu unwittingly paved the way for expansion, allowing the company to broaden its expertise to include building residential homes that are both affordable and super typhoon resistant.
At the Admiral Herbert G. Hopwood Middle School, the administrators, faculty and staff were putting together plans on how to improve and develop the educational system in the school.
“However, the typhoon took all our plans, hopes and dreams. Yutu left our school with vast destruction and was found beyond repair,” said principal Rizalina Liwag. Even so, she added “with the help of FEMA, CNMI local government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we are currently holding classes in a tent campus next to Koblerville Elementary School. This is our new normal for the time being while the government is figuring out a plan for a different location for Hopwood.”
The tourism industry, which drives the CNMI economy, was also severely hit after Yutu as tourist arrivals came to an abrupt halt. Car rentals, hotel and restaurant bookings, souvenir shops, all went to almost zero at a time that is usually considered as a peak season.
Ironically, these businesses’ only lifeline might have been the hundreds of relief workers and responders who poured in and had substantial overtime dollars to spend.
According to Marianas Visitors Authority, tourist arrivals dropped by 88 percent in November, one month after the super typhoon hit the island. In a statement in March this year, MVA arrivals to the islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Rota posted slight recovery in February 2019, but still lower than the previous year, an indication that the market was still feeling the aftermath of Yutu
To date, tourist arrivals still suffer but other factors may be contributing. In a press release issued by the Hotel Association of the Northern Marianas Islands, chairwoman Gloria Cavanagh said converging circumstances causing fewer arrivals from our major source markets. “These include the trade war between China and the U.S., the devaluation of the yuan, protests in Hong Kong, dampening of the Korea economy, cessation of Russian visitor from discretionary parole authority, and reduction or closure of Marianas Visitors Authority marketing offices due to lack of funding.”
In June, CNMI officials said that recovery and rebuilding efforts after super typhoon Yutu wiped out the government’s budget by paying the initial costs of recovery efforts: $62.5 million went to power restoration, $9.1 million went to labor costs and $8.2 million was spent to transport food and fuel to get people mobilized and $7.9 million was spent on debris removal and by law, these amounts shall be reimbursed by FEMA
FEMA set foot in the CNMI before Yutu hit and has been on the islands doing various recovery projects. Almost a year after Yutu, FEMA initiated the Permanent Housing New Construction program which started in on Tinian early this month. The PHC program is a joint effort between the CNMI government and FEMA that aims to rebuild homes that are move-in ready and are more resilient for future storms.
On Oct. 14, eleven days before Yutu’s first anniversary, FEMA extended the home rebuilding program called Voluntary Agencies Leading and Organizing Repair program that will run until April where they brought to Saipan and Tinian a total of 170 volunteers to conduct repairs on damaged homes caused by Yutu.
Connie Dancel of Chalan Kanoa does not wish for super typhoons to frequent the NMI or any other island or country. “My house was damaged after Yutu and on top of that, my family and I lost our clothes and belongings to the flood that entered our house. It was burdensome,” she said.
“But I realized, in every crisis there is an opportunity. I saw families, including mine, work together, reconnect and protect each other. A time for neighbors to help each other and even strangers,” she added.