Typhoon Yutu’s 180 mph winds overturned cars, knocked down hundreds of power poles and left an island of thousands without a medical center and another without an airport. Buildings were reduced to haphazard piles of tin and wood; if a structure wasn’t made of concrete, one resident said, it was probably wiped out by the most powerful tropical cyclone to hit any part of the United States since 1935.
Yutu spent roughly seven hours thrashing the small islands of Saipan and Tinian, the most populous part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory, early Thursday morning local time. Residents of the islands north of Guam are accustomed to typhoons but quickly attested that this was the worst they’d seen.
Yutu’s gigantic eye enveloped much of Saipan and all of Tinian, leaving the islands “mangled,” as one local official told The Washington Post. Rescue and relief operations have begun, but officials say their efforts are being hampered by dangerous weather and widespread destruction, which includes “extensive damage to critical infrastructure,” according to an update Thursday from the governor’s office. One woman on Saipan, who took shelter in an abandoned building that collapsed on her, died during the storm.
“We just went through one of the worst storms I’ve seen in all my experience in emergency management,” local emergency management official Gerald J. Deleon Guerrero said in a statement.
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 the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency had been asked for “700 to 800 power poles, transformers, and additional materials to begin power restoration,” which will have to be done before water service can be restored.
According to figures released by the Weather Underground website, Yutu was tied with the fifth-highest wind speed of any storm on record as it made landfall. Only a few storms, including 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 more powerful.
The Northern Mariana Islands are the most recent 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 and Caribbean underscore that as seas rise and storms worsen with 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 to curb global warming. Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa are affiliated with the organization.
John J. Marra, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s regional climate services director for the Pacific islands, said in an interview that in the short term, natural variability will play a greater role in determining where typhoons hit and how intense they are.
“It isn’t this steady march. It’s really waves of change,” he said by phone, adding that the intensity of typhoons in the Pacific will vary. “But each time it’s going to be worse because the baseline is shifting up over time. The sea level’s a little higher; the sea surface temperature’s going to be a little warmer.”
Nikolao Pula, who directs the Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs, said in a phone interview that Secretary Ryan Zinke heard Pacific leaders' concerns about climate change during his recent tour of the region. Zinke noted that there are other large greenhouse gas emitters besides the United States but that the department is focused on addressing the territories' immediate needs.
“Hey, how can we help fix those issues we need to fix, and we will leave the science to the scientists,” Pula said, describing the secretary’s approach.
At the moment, there are plenty of items in need of fixing.
Jose Mafnas, a resident of Saipan, told The Post in a phone interview that he lost his roof.
“We heard the tin fly out. It got stripped,” the 29-year-old attorney said, 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."
Frank Camacho, a photographer from Saipan who was on Guam, about 135 miles to the south, stayed in touch with family members 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 Thursday 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 known, Nadine Deleon Guerrero, an external affairs officer with the commonwealth’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told The Post in a phone interview. Preliminary assessments cannot be carried out until the weather improves, but speaking on the basis of “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,” Guerrero 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 added, noting 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.”
On Tinian, conditions were equally grim.
“Tinian has been devastated by Typhoon Yutu,” Mayor Joey San Nicolas said in a video on 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 that rescue operations were underway but that access to several areas throughout the island remained 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 Saipan and Tinian are full, Robert 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 those 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 dozens of FEMA personnel were positioned on Saipan and Tinian because they had been working on Guam because of Mangkhut. On Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declared a public health emergency in the territory.
FEMA spokesman Marty Bahamonde said in a phone interview Thursday that agency officials on the ground in the Northern Marinanas had sheltered in place and started working with local officials Thursday to assess the damage. He added that the agency activated its national response coordination center to operate on a 24-7 basis Wednesday night, allowing all of the federal agencies involved in the response to start planning and moving supplies that are needed in the region.
“We are synced with the Saipan government and are working to understand what the damages are and what the needs are going to be,” Bahamonde said.
The Interior Department’s Pula — who said his field representative on Saipan was texting updates Thursday as he hid under his table and part of his roof blew off — reported that many of the roofs at the island’s community college had blown off, and other schools had sustained serious damage. With ports closed, Saipan’s airport shut down and major power outages taking place, he added, the islands' vibrant tourism sector had suffered a severe blow.
“Now with this hurricane, they’re going to have to rebuild again,” he said. “It’s going to take months to get up and running.”