CNMI power restored in some areas, typhoon survivors line up for food and water

Super Typhoon Yutu nearly decimated whole neighborhoods on Saipan, where thousands are now without water and power. Courtesy of Will Hunter

SAIPAN, 29 OCTOBER 2018 (PACIFIC DAILY NEWS) – Power is restored in some areas of Saipan early Sunday evening, but water outages continue so residents may have to line up at six filling stations for non-potable water on Monday.

Hours earlier, thousands of Saipan and Tinian residents lined up for drinking water, food and disaster care products at distribution centers.

Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Gov. Ralph Torres on Sunday night also announced that he and Senate President Arnold Palacios will be suspending their campaigns from now until the Nov. 6 general elections.

“This recovery operation is beyond politics,” said Torres, who is seeking a second term. “As your governor, I will be devoting all of my time on our relief and recovery efforts. I ask our community to respect each other and help each other out during this difficult time. The more we do that, the faster we can recover.”

Tourists stranded on Saipan for days because of Super Typhoon Yutu continue to be transported off the island.

Recovery and relief supplies transported mainly by the military, through Guam, continued to arrive Sunday.

Residents and officials said recovery and rebuilding would take much longer than in previous typhoons because of the large-scale destruction caused by Yutu, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said is the strongest storm on record to ever hit U.S. soil and tied for the most powerful storm on Earth in 2018.

Yutu caused massive island-wide power and water outage, and federal and local officials started designating areas where residents could get tap water for sanitation and household needs. Saipan has a population of about 50,000.

On Tinian, where some 3,000 people live, Mayor Joey Patrick San Nicolas on Sunday said portable toilets will be placed at three locations for residents who no longer have working toilets at home.

Drone videos and photos show neighborhoods nearly decimated by the typhoon when its 178 mph sustained winds passed directly over Tinian at past 1am Thursday.

“We have had several storms in the last couple of years, so we are prepared better than we ever have been. But when you have a storm of this magnitude that affects so many residents, it doesn’t matter how prepared you are, time and adequate resources will be needed to get back to relative normalcy,” said Saipan resident Robert Hunter.

The CNMI governor announced that distribution centers are receiving more food and water, after some residents said they returned empty-handed because there were not enough supplies at the centers to help more people.

There were lines of people, although the government initially said it would be a drive-thru type of distribution, residents said.

“So many people left with nothing. If there was an announcement that only a certain number of supplies was going to be distributed, we didn’t hear about it,” said Saipan resident Nhorleen Lilles, who was among those who lined up at 7 am for the 11 am distribution, and came home empty-handed.

Each family who were able to get relief, according to residents, got up to 2 liters of drinking water, meals ready-to-eat, while others also got a blanket.

Some residents said after their cars were damaged by the typhoon or because their cars ran out of gas, they would need to walk far to have access to food and water.

Torres said assistance will be provided for residents at emergency shelters, as well as residents who do not have transportation access.

“The priority will continue to be the distribution of life saving, life sustaining commodities, and conducting mass care operations,” he said.

President Donald Trump declared the CNMI a major disaster area, which means the CNMI is in line to receive individual assistance to help residents fix their homes and public assistance to help the CNMI government cover costs like power system repairs.

U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar also declared a public health emergency for the CNMI, which involves sending more than 50 medical and public health personnel, along with medical supplies and equipment, to the islands.

Mary Grace Bautista said the typhoon ripped off all the windows in her house, soaking everything inside, at around midnight, forcing the family, including a 5-month-old infant to take refuge in their bathroom.

Other family members stayed in another room that also had its windows broken because of the damaging winds.

“They’re just hiding under the futon to protect themselves from the rain until the typhoon passed. There’s no way for them to run to the restroom because stuff blocked their way. Our windows and doors are all gone,” Bautista said.

The Bautista family live in the southern part of Saipan, which was the area that received the least amount of damage when Typhoon Soudelor hit the island in 2015.

Bautista said it may take four to five months before her family can recover from the damages. During Soudelor three years ago, Saipan was without power for up to four months.

She said she’s aware of the Sunday food and water distribution but she couldn’t leave the house with an infant and two other minor children and her husband at work, plus their two cars and one truck were damaged by the typhoon.

“We put plywood on our windows so we could sleep in our place,” she said. “We don’t know how we’re going to start to put our lives back.” Despite the loss, Bautista is thankful the family is together.

Hunter, who is also secretary of the CNMI Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, said rebuilding Saipan and Tinian is going to be a process, not dissimilar to what took place after Soudelor, “only on a larger scale.”

“That process has started with the disaster declaration and federal assistance coming on line. We have water and power to get back online, homes and businesses to rebuild and in the meantime, care for people in shelters until they are transitioned back to homes or other transitional accommodations,” he said.

Airports are in need of significant repair, he said. Power and water crews have started clearing damaged power poles and assessing the system.

Because of damages, the Saipan International Airport reopened on Friday but only for military and humanitarian purposes, and to transport stranded tourists out of Saipan.

First Hawaiian Bank branches on Saipan will also open Monday.

In 2015, life was basically back to normal three or four months after Soudelor, Hunter said.

Yutu affected significantly more individuals, as it hit the south and Tinian, particularly areas that were less affected by Soudelor, he said.

“Of course, recovery doesn’t affect everyone equally, unfortunately. There are many who’ve lost everything, and will be putting the pieces of their lives together for years in some cases, certainly. But I’ve been here for over 40 years and have seen many typhoons, and each and every time, we are back up on our feet as quickly as possible,” he said.

Federal resources, specifically assistance for homeowners, residential and business loans, will be crucial to seeing families rebuild.

“I think this is the most critical piece. I don’t speak for FEMA or SBA, but I’d personally like to see recipients of assistance case-managed to some degree, so that they not only receive the actual resources they need to rebuild, but to build better. We can use this terrible disaster to see people are in a better place at the end of this, with better, stronger homes,” he said.

Some community members have come forward to help clean up their neighborhoods, not just their own backyard.

For days without tap water and limited drinking water, residents have resorted to drinking coconut juice.

Saipan resident Leni Leon, who has been capturing images of Yutu’s destruction and rebuilding, said for many island residents, “coconut will be as useful as it was 5,000 years ago.”

“With no electricity and running water. These coconuts will serve great use for drinking and eating. Without clean running water, many families on the island face possible water contamination caused by decaying foliage that have made it into their residential water reservoirs,” Leon said, as he met a man collecting coconuts that were fallen off the trees around the island.