MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: The huge storm you likely didn’t hear about.
NICK EICHER, HOST: If you asked someone to name the most powerful storm to hit the U.S., a few immediately come to mind: Hurricane Katrina in 2005; Andrew back in 1992; or the great Storm of 1900 that slammed into Galveston.
But the most powerful storm ever to hit U.S. soil actually happened this year—only about a month ago.
REICHARD: The Northern Mariana Islands are about 120 miles north of Guam. The 15 small islands became a U.S. commonwealth in 1975, three decades after playing a key role in World War II.
Saipan was the site of a pivotal battle as the U.S. advanced toward Japan in 1944. And from the smaller island of Tinian, the Enola Gay took off and dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan in August 1945.
EICHER: Today, the Northern Mariana Islands are home to more than 50,000 residents—many of them U.S. citizens. But midterm election news overshadowed a super typhoon named Yutu that slammed into the islands late last month.
WORLD Radio’s Jill Nelson spoke with those who witnessed the storm and has this report.
JILL NELSON, REPORTER: When Pastor Manuelitos Rey heard about Typhoon Yutu’s direct path to his small island, he tracked the storm on satellite images. His main concern? The unfinished building his church had just moved into after the last typhoon severely damaged the old church building.
REY: You can only do so much in preparation. The rest will be, you know, you rest in the Lord.”
He took shelter with his wife and son in their home next to the church.
The 60-year-old pastor has lived through many strong storms in the Pacific, but forecasters said this one would be a monster.
AUDIO: Latest on Typhoon Yutu which has strengthened further. Now Force Thirteen’s estimate has it at 185 miles per hour and a pressure of 896 millibars. The storm will be the strongest storm to strike Saipan in over a hundred years.
The weathermen were right.
AUDIO: [Sound of typhoon]
On October 24th, the eye of the storm passed directly over the island of Tinian, population 3,000. Pastor Rey’s island of Saipan is 14 miles north. It saw nearly the same force: Sustained winds of 178 miles per hour and gusts up to 200 miles per hour. That’s the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane.
Rey said the winds were terrifying:
REY: More than 10 hours of sustained pounding of the typhoon. I would say that this is the most scary typhoon that I have been through in my lifetime so far.
They prayed—and looked for shelter. Bathrooms are a common place to hole up, but the storm destroyed theirs right away. Then the roof blew off and the kitchen, where they were huddled, began to crumble.
The strong gusts overturned cars, wiped out airports, and damaged or destroyed more than 3,000 homes.
After the storm, Tinian’s mayor, Joey San Nicolas, provided Facebook video updates as water dripped into his office.
SAN NICOLAS: I can report to you that Tinian has been devastated by Typhoon Yutu. The homes, many homes have been destroyed. Our critical infrastructure has been compromised. We currently have no power and water at this time.
President Trump declared the Northern Mariana Islands a major disaster area, paving the way for federal aid. Hundreds of troops arrived to help with damage assessment and recovery efforts.
David Gervino works for FEMA and was already on Saipan when the typhoon hit. He was part of a team deployed to aid in recovery after the last typhoon—in September.
GERVINO: A disaster taking place on an island always presents logistical challenges. We’re fortunate we have a FEMA distribution center housed on Guam, which is basically a warehouse similar to the ones we have scattered across the continental United States.
That warehouse consistently stores around 100,000 meals and liters of water as well as cots. That’s a big help during emergencies like this one.
Samaritan’s Purse is also on site providing medical services and supplies, including tarps, solar lights and water filters. Mark Langham works for the nonprofit and says 95 percent of their distribution is done through local churches.
LANGHAM: The local church has gone out into the community and identified the people in their neighborhood that need what we have. So we invite them to a distribution at the church and then we’re able to not only meet the physical needs of the people but we also share the hope of Christ.
Langham said relief supplies may be necessary for several more months, and recovery efforts won’t be easy. Relief agencies learned during the last major hurricane that there’s a huge shortfall of certified builders and contractors on the islands. And all building materials have to be imported.
LANGHAM: So as they look forward, they know what they’re up against and also they know that it’s going to take a huge concerted effort to build this island back quick enough and resilient enough for the next hurricane season.
After the storm tore apart the kitchen where Pastor Rey and his family were taking shelter, they ran to the living room. That part of his home held up, protecting his family. His church lost its roof, but services continue.
Power is starting to come back online and more than half of the water wells are restored. But pictures of the islands reveal a daunting task ahead.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jill Nelson.