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Extreme Category 5 typhoon, the worst U.S. storm since 1935, leaves Northern Mariana Islands devastated

“We’re all grateful to God to be alive,” one Saipan resident said.

Super Typhoon Yutu tore through the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands with winds up to 180 mph on Oct. 25. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

Follow Thursday’s updates here: Category 5 Typhoon Yutu devastates the Northern Marianas in worst storm to hit any part of U.S. since 1935

Super Typhoon Yutu rampaged through the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands on Thursday, leaving behind storm damage that residents are calling the worst they have ever experienced.

Tied for the strongest storm anywhere in the world this year, Yutu packed sustained winds of 180 mph, and its gigantic eye enveloped much of the island of Saipan and all of Tinian, leaving the Pacific islands “mangled,” as one local official described it to The Washington Post. Rescue and relief operations have begun, but officials say their efforts are hampered by dangerous weather conditions and widespread destruction, which includes “extensive damage to critical infrastructure,” according to a Thursday update from the governor’s office.

“We just went through one of the worst storms I’ve seen in all my experience in emergency management,” said a statement from emergency management officials for the commonwealth, known as the CNMI.

The Thursday update cited hundreds of downed power poles and a “significantly large number of downed transformers and conductors” on Saipan and Tinian. It said that FEMA had been asked for “700 to 800 power poles, transformers, and additional materials to begin power restoration,” which would have to be done before water service can be restored.

According to figures released by the Weather Underground, Yutu was tied for fifth place when it comes to the highest wind speeds of any storm on record at the time of striking land. Only a few storms, such as 2013′s Super Typhoon Haiyan (which struck the Philippines), have been stronger, and even then, not by much. For the United States, just one storm — the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane that hit the Florida Keys — is believed to have been stronger.

The Northern Mariana Islands are another U.S. territory to have been pummeled by a strong hurricane in the past two years. The U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico suffered calamitous strikes in the 2017 hurricane season, and Guam was recently struck by Typhoon Mangkhut.

Overall, the escalating impacts on U.S. island territories in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea underscore that as seas rise and storms worsen in the face of climate change, small islands face some of the most extreme risks on Earth. Many have organized into the Alliance of Small Island States to push for strong action on climate change. Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa are affiliated with the organization.

Images of the storm’s aftermath in the Marianas were horrific. In Saipan, the largest of the islands, roadways were littered with downed power poles and tree branches. Parked cars were smashed by debris, some overturned by the powerful winds. What used to be buildings were reduced to haphazard piles of tin and wood. If it wasn’t made of concrete, it’s probably gone, said Jose Mafnas, a resident of Saipan whose roof was torn off his home.

“We heard the tin fly out. It got stripped,” the 29-year-old attorney told The Post in a phone interview, describing the moment Yutu took his roof. “Water was coming in through the wooden ceiling, and then eventually the whole ceiling just collapsed down to the floor. My house and my neighbors' houses are pretty much destroyed . . . There’s just tin roofing all over the place.”

The National Weather Service in Guam had warned residents that the winds would be so strong that “most homes will sustain severe damage with potential for complete roof failure and wall collapse. Most industrial buildings will be destroyed.”

Still, Mafnas said, he was “at a loss for words” when he first saw the havoc Yutu wreaked on his island. “I knew the damage would be significant, but coming out in the morning, even with that knowledge, I was still surprised by how devastating it was,” he said.

Frank Camacho, a photographer from Saipan who was on Guam, about 135 miles to the south, when the storm hit, stayed in touch with family and friends via WhatsApp and relayed to The Post what they were experiencing.

“Massive flooding in homes, roofs being blown off, storm shutters flying off concrete buildings, buildings being leveled, and the storm is still hitting in the 70-100 mph range,” Camacho said in an email as dawn broke on Thursday local time on the islands. (The islands are 14 hours ahead of Eastern time.) “My sister just lost her whole house on Saipan …. [People] hiding in their bathrooms as the eye passed over the islands.”

The full extent of the damage is not yet known, Nadine Deleon Guerrero, an external affairs officer with the CNMI Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told The Post in a phone interview. Preliminary assessments cannot be carried out until weather conditions improve, but based on “windshield assessments,” Guerrero said the devastation caused by Yutu is “five times worse” than that from Typhoon Soudelor, which slammed the islands in 2015. Soudelor was the strongest tropical cyclone in the 2015 Pacific typhoon season. In general, the northwest Pacific, where tropical cyclones are referred to as typhoons (not hurricanes), has the most numerous and strongest storms on the planet.

“It’s so much damage,” she said. “This is the worst storm that I’ve ever seen."

Nola Hix, another Saipan resident, told The Post via WhatsApp that she lived through Soudelor and had “prayed we’d never experience [that] again.” Unfortunately, Yutu was Soudelor “x 20,” she wrote.

“We are all grateful to God to be alive,” Hix wrote, adding that her brother’s and mother’s homes were destroyed. “It was very scary. I had never heard wind and rain like that, and it went on for a long time.”

Super Typhoon Yutu brought lashing rain and high winds to Saipan as it drew closer to the Northern Mariana Islands on Oct. 24. (Video: Esther Muna via Storyful)

On the neighboring island of Tinian, conditions were equally grim.

“Tinian has been devastated by Typhoon Yutu,” Mayor Joey San Nicolas said in a video posted to Facebook. “Many homes have been destroyed. Our critical infrastructure has been compromised. We currently have no power and water at this time.”

San Nicolas said rescue operations are underway, but access to several points throughout the island remains very limited. “Tinian has been destroyed . . . but our spirits have not,” he said. “We are in the process of recovering from this typhoon, and we ask for your continued prayers.”

Emergency shelters on both Saipan and Tinian are full, Bob Schwalbach, a spokesman for Del. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (D), the islands' representative in Congress, told The Post in an email. Saipan’s health center is running on emergency power, and the one in Tinian, which has no patients, “sustained major damage,” Schwalbach said.

On Saipan, Guerrero said the government’s main priority is providing aid to the people who lost their homes. It is not yet clear how many lack shelter, but the number is likely in the hundreds, she said. The plan is to work with local and federal agencies to distribute tents that can survive winds of up to 60 mph, she said.

President Trump declared a disaster in the Marianas before the storm made landfall, and on Thursday more than 100 Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel, who had been on Guam because of the earlier Typhoon Mangkhut, arrived on Saipan, Rota and Tinian, the Guam-based Pacific Daily News reported.

FEMA External Affairs Officer Todd Hoose told the newspaper that the agency is “doing everything they can to check on people and ensure their safety.”

“Everyone’s been poised for [Yutu],” Hoose said. “We have set everything out, been testing it and waiting for this to hit . . . Now they’re actually putting boots on the ground.”

FEMA officials in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. The agency’s home page offered links to information about Hurricanes Michael, Florence and Maria but not Yutu. FEMA has tweeted a few times about the storm during the last day and a half, urging residents to seek information from the National Weather Service and local authorities.

“If you have loved ones in the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI) or Guam, check in with them after #Yutu via social media or text,” the agency tweeted. “We are continuing to work with local officials as they assess damage and respond to the storm impacts.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it had “generators prestaged for Yutu at nearby locations — 77 generators in Guam, 1 generator at a Rota Hospital, and 85 additional generators in Hawaii.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose department has responsibility for U.S. territories, recently visited the Marianas as part of a broader trip to the Pacific. During the trip, according to the Pacific Daily News, Zinke said of climate change: “If it is a priority in the Pacific, then it becomes our priority too."

Zinke did not issue a formal statement Wednesday about the storm, but tweeted: “Thinking of my friend Governor Torres and the people of the Northern Marianas after the typhoon. @POTUS issued a disaster declaration to aid in relief and recovery.”

The Northern Mariana Islands, which the United States took from Japan after World War II, are home to 52,000 people, the majority of whom are U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals. Tinian, the island at the center of the storm, was the site from which the B-29 missions to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were launched, forcing Japan to surrender.

The Northern Mariana Islands used to be home to dozens of garment factories, in part because the territory was exempt from federal minimum wage requirements along with quotas and tariffs on U.S. textile imports. The industry collapsed a decade ago, after the tariffs and quotas expired and Congress passed a law raising the islands’ minimum wage. The value of its textile exports to the United States fell from $1.1 billion in 1998 to “near zero in 2010,” according to a 2017 Government Accountability Office report, as operations shifted to elsewhere in Asia.

The territory has been largely dependent on foreign workers. Tourism ranks as a major pillar of the local economy, and a relatively new casino on Saipan has spurred considerable construction in recent years.

While the Mariana Archipelago consists of 15 islands, roughly 90 percent of the territory’s residents live on Saipan, which was severely affected by Yutu. Some six percent live on the island of Tinian, which was struck most directly.

The extreme strike occurred with little warning, as the storm strengthened from Category 1 to Category 5 in just a day’s time before landfall. The maximum sustained wind speed increased by 80 mph over that time, resulting in a storm with gusts exceeding 200 mph.

Scientists have recently suggested that such dangerous “rapid intensification” events, which also happened with hurricanes Michael and Florence, may become more common as the planet warms and the oceans heat up, providing additional fuel for storms.

For now, all residents can really do is start picking up the pieces of their lives, Mafnas said.

“All we can do is clean up,” he said. “It’s extremely unfortunate that Saipan and Tinian and the CNMI were hit this hard, but I’m confident that our people are going to band together as a community and help each other out.””