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Some typhoon names became synonyms for massive destruction

Typhoon Paka smashed military quarters on Naval Station on Dec. 17, 1997. Photo courtesy of DOD

By Mar-Vic Cagurangan Situated within the breeding ground for tropical cyclones, Guam is constantly threatened by the passage of a developing tropical cyclone, and on occasion, a full-strength typhoon.

The first recorded typhoon on Guam occurred on Oct. 7, 1671 when the eye passed directly over the island. According to records, “many people were killed by falling debris and inadequate shelter while the damage to agriculture crops was a serious loss to the people.” Querida, which made landfall on Sept. 21, 1946, was the first Guam typhoon to be named.

Guam had been visited by countless typhoons over the last century. While some caused minor damage, others wreaked havoc and left casualties. The most atrocious typhoons became the points of reference for weather forecasters and memory markers for those who experienced them. Some names have become synonyms for massive destruction.

James Moylan, Guam’s delegate to Congress, was five months old when typhoon Karen struck Guam in November 1962. “According to the story that my parents told me, they placed me in a dresser drawer while they were struggling to maintain the house structure by holding up the walls,” he said.

The family home survived Karen, but eventually collapsed after successive storms.

Typhoon Karen killed 11 people and left thousands of people homeless. Photo courtesy of Guampedia

Moylan was 14 when typhoon Pamela smashed Guam with punishing winds in May 1976. “Our home was more concrete then, but the winds blew out the windows and the water damaged our home,” he said. “We didn’t have power for six months. For several months, we had to use the bucket to collect water.”

Scott Kono, a Guam-born contractor who now lives in Alaska, came home to the island for a funeral a week after typhoon Mawar. “I’ve been through many typhoons on Guam since I was a kid,” said Kono, who was born and raised in Maite. Guam still had Quonset huts then. Over the years, they were replaced by wooden homes.

“During Pamela, we parked our cars in front of a warehouse on the other side of the street. We were playing cards inside the car when it started to get windy. It blew off the doors of the warehouse. Coconuts flew through the walls,” Kono recalled. “We took shelter at a Korean Christian church in Tamuning.”

Coming back to Guam after Mawar was no big deal, he said. “You got power back after a week. After Pamela, we had no power for 14 months. It was completely dark at night; you could see the stars.”

A large part of Guam remained without power, water and internet for more than month after Mawar. The slow recovery caused lingering frustrations among residents. Some reacted with sarcastic humor, if not stoic resignation. “The power crew keeps coming by, but they never fix it,” said JH, a Latte Heights resident. “It’s OK. We had no power for a lot longer before when the typhoons happened.”

Mawar was the strongest typhoon to hit Guam in 20 years. Most residents have concluded that, after two decades after Pongsona, Guam remained unprepared for ferocious typhoons.

To some, however, the level of contentment with the government’s response to the crisis was relatively passable—compared to other places and previous disasters.

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Guam fared better than Puerto Rico, according to Todd Semonite, president of WSP, a federal contractor that assists the Federal Emergency Management Agency in rebuilding the storm-battered island.

He noted that Guam managed to get back on its feet much faster than anticipated. “Mother Nature is very powerful,” Semonite said. “Guam is already off to a great start. There are others that took a while to get back up; it’s more of a marathon than a sprint. I have seen places where it took six to seven weeks to get their power back.”

In general, Semonite said, resiliency was evident among Guam residents. “I am amazed at how dedicated the local residents are to get their houses back up and running,” he said. “This goes back to the ethics of going back to normal. I was very impressed with the residents. It is important not to wait for somebody else to do it for them.”


The most damaging typhoons that hit Guam over the last century:

May 26-27, 1900: Buildings were demolished in Sumay, Agat, Merizo, and Inarajan with three bridges awash. Trees were uprooted or torn to shreds with extensive damage to all crops.

Nov. 13, 1900: A huge wall of water coming in from the sea overwhelmed the village of Inarajan, killing or drowning 28 people.

July 6, 1918: Six people were killed, thousands were left homeless and property valued at many thousands of dollars received considerable damage. Hundreds of native homes were overturned while more substantial structures were either unroofed or demolished.

Querida/ Sept. 21, 1946: Extensive damage was inflicted on temporary buildings with many Quonset huts demolished.

Allyn/ Nov. 17, 1947: A total of 2,500 homes were damaged, and in the town of Inarajan, 60 percent were destroyed by inundation from the sea. Cocos Island was completely inundated and four major bridges were destroyed.

Alice/Oct. 14, 1953: A severe electrical storm accompanied the passage of Alice with lightning that struck Andersen Air Force Base three times. Two airmen burned. Four bridges were washed away, isolating southern communities. Four people drowned. Behind Marine Drive in Tamuning, all homes were inundated with depths of three to four feet of water.

Nancy/Sept. 10. 1961: Roads were damaged by wave action along the southern coast and 50 percent of crops in the southern part of the island were destroyed.

Karen/Nov. 11, 1962: Some reports said nine people we killed, others said, 11. Approximately $250 million in damage were sustained, while 99 percent of homes were destroyed. Reports have discrepancies. Some said the storm left 9,000 homeless, others said 45,000.

Pamela/May 21, 1976: About 80 percent of the buildings were damaged, while 3,300 houses were totally destroyed. Pamela's slow motion produced 856mm of rainfall, making May 1976 the wettest on record in Guam.

Russ/Dec. 20, 1990: Damage was estimated at $120 million. The most devastation occurred on the southern portion of Guam where 341 houses were destroyed, 460 suffered major damage, and 1,210 had minor damage. Russ left most of the island without water and power for days. Offshore, 11 fishermen were lost from foreign long-line fishing vessels.

Omar/Aug. 28, 1992: The storm left one person dead and $457 million in damage. Nearly the entire island was left without power for several days. Omar damaged or destroyed 2,158 houses, leaving 3,000 people homeless.

Paka/Dec. 17, 1997: Around 1,500 buildings were destroyed, while 10,000 buildings sustained damage to some degree. About 5,000 people were left homeless. An estimated 30–40 percent of the public buildings received major damage.

Pongsona/Dec. 8, 2002: Left 65 percent of the island's water wells inoperable, with most of Guam left without water service following the storm. The typhoon destroyed 1,300 homes, severely damaged 1,825, and lightly damaged 4,800. Damage totaled over $700 million.

Mawar/May 24, 2023: Initial damage estimate was placed at $120 million. Assessment is still being made. The typhoon cut off power, water and communication services. Guam is still in the process of restoration.

(Sources: NOAA, Guampedia, Wikipedia)

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