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By John Ravelo

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Aug. 24) - Supertyphoon Chaba ripped through the Northern Marianas yesterday with wind of up to 180 miles per hour, plucking up trees and power poles, causing total power and water outages, flooding roads and homes, blowing away entire sections of roofs, and driving close to 900 persons to temporary shelters.

Gov. Juan N. Babauta quickly declared a state of emergency in the Commonwealth even before Chaba left the islands and asked President Bush to expeditiously declare the CNMI as a major disaster area, saying the destruction caused by the supertyphoon was so severe that local resources would not be enough to support recovery efforts.

The governor also asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a Joint Federal/State Rapid Needs Assessment on the damage caused by the typhoon. Initial estimates placed the damage at over $18 million.

Chaba unleashed its fury beginning 6 p.m. Sunday, with howling winds escalating from 110mph to 145mph at dawn yesterday. Heavy rain accompanied the winds from Sunday night to early Monday morning, resulting in floods on several portions of the islands.Around 1 a.m. yesterday morning, the rains caused the stormwater drainage on Middle Road by the Sugar King Park to overflow, producing a strong current that endangered motorists. Chaba also caused the Commonwealth Utilities Corp.'s sewer lines to overflow in Tanapag and in San Antonio, with the sewage ending up in nearby beaches.

The ferocious winds knocked down trees and branches, rendering some thoroughfares temporarily impassable. This stranded several motorists throughout the night, forcing them to take temporary shelter at commercial establishments until police and government personnel began clearing roadblocks early yesterday.

Chaba's eye went as close as 25 miles northeast of Rota, wielding 120mph winds, gusting to 150 mph about 10 pm Sunday. By 2am yesterday, the National Weather Service located the typhoon's eye at about 40 miles north of Rota, packing winds of almost supertyphoon-strength at 145mph, gusting to 175 mph.

With Chaba extending to about 50 miles in diameter, Emergency Management Office director Rudolfo Pua said Rota suffered severely from the typhoon's battering. Pua said Rota possibly was the worst hit by the typhoon, which stayed close to the island for several hours. "The [typhoon] looped between Rota and Tinian, and then went up northwest."

Rota Mayor Benjamin Manglona declared the island as a local disaster area late Sunday night, asking the governor to identify local funds to assist the island in relief efforts. He also asked Babauta to immediately contact FEMA and other federal agencies to seek emergency relief programs.

"In the absence of the official report, I believe the damage caused by Typhoon Chaba is extensive as the eye of [the] typhoon] may have directly struck over the island of Rota," Manglona said.

On Saipan, 145mph winds came as close as 50 miles southwest of the island at about 2am yesterday, enough to overturn a 40-footer container van, rip away roofs and destroy houses, and knock down huge trees and power poles.

Forty-year-old Sally Bartolome of Middle Road, Gualo Rai, was hit on the shoulder by her apartment's door, which flew off its hinges due to strong winds. She and her relatives evacuated to Winchell's in Garapan until daylight, only to find out that the house has been destroyed.

"This is the first time I've experienced this in my 13 years on Saipan," Bartolome said. The house's roof got blown several meters away near the northbound lane of the Middle Road.

Her relative, Boyong De Castro, said their clothes and other belongings were wet. "This is the typhoon that had the strongest wind to hit us. Even supertyphoon Pongsona did not damage our house in 2002."

Chaba knocked down at least two power poles fronting the Chamolinian Cultural Village in Garapan, and a light post on Airport Road near the Saipan International Airport.

The steel-concrete ceiling of the biggest Mobil gas retail station on Saipan on Middle Road, Garapan collapsed, prompting its management to close down the outlet yesterday when motorists were lining up to refuel.

"We can't open the station yet. It's a loss. Motorists were lining up here, but we have to prioritize safety first," owner Tess Castro said yesterday.

Almost all of the gas stations on the island temporarily discontinued service Sunday afternoon in anticipation of Chaba's destructive winds, except for the Shell gas station on Airport Road, which heeded patrons' demand to remain open. As gas retail stations resumed service yesterday morning, a long line of motorists could be seen waiting for their turn to gas up.

By 7am, Chaba intensified to supertyphoon, as maximum sustained winds reached 180mph gusting to 220mph. By this time, the EMO said the supertyphoon was about 115 miles west of Saipan, 110 miles west of Tinian, and 110 miles northwest of Rota. The EMO said Chaba, which then moved westerly at a faster pace of 17mph, was about 215 miles southwest of Alamagan, 235 miles south southwest of Pagan, and 275 miles south-southwest of Agrihan.

Chaba maintained wind strength until yesterday afternoon, when the governor cancelled his typhoon condition declaration for the islands as of 4:15pm. The EMO said the supertyphoon was about 190 miles west of Saipan, 185 miles west-northwest of Tinian, and 185 northwest of Rota, while moving west-northwest at 9 mph.

867 evacuees flee homes

At least 867 residents temporarily vacated their homes to government-designated shelters.

The number doubled from Sunday's over 373 total, as Chaba's eye approached the islands early Sunday night. Evacuees filled at least two shelters-the Oleai Elementary School and the ChaCha OceanView Jr. High School-with evacuees numbering beyond these two shelters' capacities.

Evacuees at Oleai reached 145, greater than its 140-head capacity, while ChaCha had 96 evacuees, 26 more than what it could normally accommodate.

The number of evacuees at the Marianas High School, which can accommodate up to 400 persons, totaled 144. Koberville Elementary School had 83 evacuees; Garapan Elementary School, 75; San Vicente Elementary School, 65; Kagman High School, 55; Tanapag Elementary School, 39; Dandan Elementary School, 31; and William S. Reyes Elementary School, 10.

Rota's Man Amko' Center temporarily housed some 72 residents, while the island's health center accommodated some six evacuees. Some 46 persons trooped to the Tinian Elementary School for temporary shelter.

The use of the classrooms as temporary shelters means they won't be available for classes this week. However, the Public School System reportedly advised the EMO that it could only allow the use of the facilities until Friday.

The PSS intends to resume classes once power and water supplies are restored, according to Board of Education chair Roman Benavente. He noted that schools becoming temporary shelters are merely the secondary function of the facilities in cases of typhoon.

"I'm hoping that classes will resume Monday next week because classrooms need to be cleaned first," Benavente said. "We have the responsibility to our students. We need to open the schools for them. However, we can't open it if we don't have power and water."

Babauta and Lt. Gov. Diego T. Benavente assured, though, that the government would look for other temporary shelters to house evacuees once classes resume, saying that their safety is of paramount concern.

Among the possible alternative shelters being looked at is the Kagman Community Center, Lt. Gov. Benavente said.

"We can't just let these people [evacuees] leave [the shelters] without homes to go back to," Babauta said. "If we can't place residents in alternative shelters, we have no choice but to ask PSS to keep them in schools for more days."

The BoE chair welcomed the possibility that the use of the schools as temporary shelters might be extended.

"I know that some evacuees have lost their homes, he said. "I also know that the governor and the rest of the team [are] finding other means to house them," said BoE's Benavente, adding that even schools sustained infrastructure damage.

Govt begins restoration work

Government agencies pooled efforts to immediately begin restoration work as soon as Chaba's wind strength subsided yesterday.

Some policemen could be seen using chainsaws to cut up huge trees that blockaded roads and caused traffic snarls, including debris on the road leading to Chalan Kiya.

The Department of Public Works also began mobilizing equipment and manpower to clear thoroughfares from debris.

EMO's Pua advised motorists to stay indoors as much as possible. "[Going out] is very risky because of the debris on the roads. It also hampers debris clearing."

CUC's crewmen attended to damaged power poles and transformers on different portions of the islands.

Chaba's wind strength downed power lines and prompted the CUC to shut down power generation until the weather clears up. Full restoration work, however, might take one or two weeks, the governor said. Without power, the CUC's power lines rendered the firm's water pumps temporarily non-functional, Lt. Gov. Benavente added.

Pua said he asked government agencies to submit their respective damage assessment report, as well as to contribute whatever resources they could extend to help in the restoration efforts.

This development followed the governor's declaration of a state of emergency, which empowered him to identify and mobilize resources to respond to the damage caused by Chaba.

The EMO advised all government employees to report for work today, including PSS employees, despite cancelled classes.

The Commonwealth Health center would also resume normal operations tomorrow, the EMO said. "All peripheral clinics including the STD/HIV Center, Southern Clinic, Northern Clinic, [and] BEH [Bureau of Environmental Health] office [would] be open [today], provided that electricity in the areas has been turned on. Due to fallen power poles, the CDAC [Children's Disability Assistance Center] [would] be closed [today]."

The Department of Public Health also advised residents to boil rainwater before drinking it.

Yesterday, a team from the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration volunteered to conduct site surveys on matters involving safety and hazardous materials.

OSHA's James Wulff, safety and health manager at the agency's Saipan office, said OSHA regional administrator Frank Strasheim personally witnessed the wrath of the supertyphoon. Wulff said Strasheim is on-island after last week's Safety and Health Conference, where the administrator was keynote speaker. (with Liberty Dones)

August 24, 2004

Saipan Tribune http://www.saipantribune.com

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