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  • By Bea Cabrera

Lessons from Super Typhoons: Upgrading construction standards in the CNMI

Saipan— The challenge with the CNMI or any remote place in the Pacific are the conditions brought about by natural elements, which can be quite severe. On Oct. 25, 2018, super typhoon Yutu made landfall on Saipan and Tinian, the kind that has never been seen nor experienced before.

Dubbed as the strongest typhoon to ever hit the American soil, with winds of 180 mph and gusts of up to 220 mph, Super Typhoon Yutu destroyed over 500 homes, leaving over 1,000 individuals homeless.

The low standard of building infrastructure in the CNMI did not help; it exacerbated the fatal destruction super typhoon Yutu left behind. Infrastructure in the CNMI is known to have varying degrees of success. Many of them, whether residential or commercial, do not meet U.S. standards.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was already on Saipan when Super Typhoon Yutu hit due to an earlier typhoon, Mangkhut, which hit another island, Rota.

Sheryl Cochran, FEMA Recovery Office director for Super Typhoon Yutu & Typhoon Mangkhut, and Mark “Todd” Hoose, FEMA external affairs officer, are responsible for assisting typhoon survivors.

“Our office is responsible for assisting the survivors of Super Typhoon Yutu and Typhoon Mangkhut with Stafford Act Eligible Projects such as the restoration and repair of utilities, schools, government facilities and assisting individuals through Permanent Housing Repair and Construction and the Volunteer Agencies Leading and Organizing Repair or VALOR program,” Cochran said. “We are also working with the CNMI to rebuild while implementing resiliency measures to lessen the impact of any future storms.”

Mark Todd Hoose

Two years after the super typhoon hit, FEMA is still building and repairing homes. “FEMA will be building 183 new construction homes to replace homes deemed damaged beyond reasonable repair. These homes will be completely concrete including the roofs with typhoon shutters and a water catchment system as well,” Hoose said.

He added that 20 homes are currently under construction with the first home completion anticipated in early May 2020 and the last home completion projected in June 2022.

FEMA is repairing homes under two separate programs. The Permanent Housing Repair Program is repairing 126 homes to their pre-disaster layout while incorporating additional hazard mitigation aspects, Hoose said.

“Each home is evaluated, and the roof repairs are reengineered and designed to sustain 195mph winds with windows fitted with typhoon shutters. To date repairs have been completed on 38 homes that survivors and their families are now living in again and PHC is scheduled through June 2022,” he added.

The Volunteer Agencies Leading and Organizing Repair or VALOR program, authorized through April 26, 2020, addresses the unmet needs of survivors who do not qualify for traditional FEMA assistance. “The repairs are considered emergencies and only address roofs, windows and doors, electrical, plumbing and access, and functional needs. One hundred twenty-two homes have been repaired by volunteers under this program with an additional 52 homes awaiting completion,” Hoose added.

Sheryl Cochran

According to Cochran, the number one takeaway lesson from all the building and repairing in the CNMI points out to the adoption of current building codes. “This will lessen the risk in future storms. FEMA, in conjunction with the CNMI Governor’s Office, is encouraging private businesses and homeowners to follow the adopted International Building Codes,” she said.

“All FEMA new construction and repair homes were built to the 2018 International Building Codes for Wind and to the 2013 IBC for electrical and plumbing interior to the home. The adopted building codes specifically address the hazards associated with our environment in the CNMI. With any project, proper planning and ordering ahead for the necessary materials needs to be factored into your building timeline,” she added.

Hoose said that the Stafford Act, upon which FEMA was founded, requires that any repairs be brought to current codes and standards when utilizing federal grant money for repair or replacement.

“When the grants are completed, inspections are done at closeout to ensure the structures are in compliance,” Hoose said. “The governor and CNMI departments are working with FEMA through their traditional repair projects and are also leveraging the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program that allows the CNMI to identify critical infrastructure improvements such as concrete power poles, generators, and concrete roofs to strengthen the resiliency of the CNMI.”

“A number of private construction firms are involved in the recovery efforts; per the Governor’s directive they should all be instituting the current adopted building codes,” he added.

Given that the CNMI is [not only] a strategically important U.S. territory, but also vulnerable to natural disasters, Cochran said that recovery following any disaster requires teamwork and collaboration. “The CNMI and FEMA share a mutual goal in assuring the CNMI is stronger and more resilient to face any future disasters. FEMA is a dedicated partner to the CNMI’s recovery efforts,” she said.

“The FEMA mission statement is helping people before, during, and after the storm. FEMA was on the ground before Super Typhoon Yutu, and FEMA projects have continued to be supported. To ensure the continuity of the recovery operation here FEMA has established the Long-Term Recovery Office that is coordinating efforts in lockstep with the CNMI Governor’s office,” she added.

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