Typhoon Soudelor Hits Saipan Hard, No Fatalities Reported

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120 mile per hour wind gusts, torrential rains leave significant damage

By Gaynor Dumat-ol Dalen

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Aug. 4, 2015) – Typhoon Soudelor hit Saipan late Sunday and early Monday, flooding the island’s power plant, ripping roofs off homes and toppling power poles.

Hundreds of Saipan residents remained in shelters Monday afternoon. Some roads remained impassable, and power and water services were out.

"I’ve seen multiple primary power poles down; I’ve seen cars flipped over the road; I’ve seen lots of torn roofs," said John Hirsh, executive director of the American Red Cross in Saipan.

Damage is "extensive" across the island and there have been significant damage to public infrastructure, Hirsh said, after an initial assessment.

The typhoon’s full force was felt between 11 p.m. Sunday to around 1 a.m. Monday, Hirsh said, and at the time, it felt like the island took "a direct hit."

[PIR editor’s note: RNZI reported that ‘Typhoon Soudelor, which formed last Thursday near Guam, is picking up strength and is now the strongest cyclone in the world this year. ... Soudelar battered the Northern Marianas on Sunday night, wrecking buildings and leaving hundreds in shelters. ... It had winds of up to 170 kilometres an hour but the storm now has winds of up to 285 kilometres an hour, making it stronger than Pam, which caused widespread destruction in Vanuatu in March.’]

‘State of disaster’

Acting Gov. Ralph DLG Torres declared "a state of disaster and significant emergency" for the island, said Ivan Blanco, press secretary at the governor’s office in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas.

Saipan is the CNMI’s main island, the seat of government and hub of the local economy. Many hotels and other business establishments line the coast.

About 350 people were in shelters as of noon Monday. Power and water were out, Blanco said, and emergency first responders were still assessing damage Monday afternoon.

Ten patients received treatment at the Commonwealth Health Center in Saipan for cuts and wounds following the typhoon, said Cora Ada, the hospital’s preparedness response coordinator and acting chief financial officer.

Part of the roof of Saipan’s power plant was ripped off and the plant was flooded, Blanco said.

The status of the Saipan airport and seaport weren’t immediately available Monday.

Fuel spills

Flying debris from the storm breached a fuel storage tank on the island, causing thousands of gallons of gasoline to spill into a containment area around the tank.

Coast Guard Sector Guam, which is coordinating response efforts in Saipan, stated none of the gasoline from the ruptured storage tank spilled from the containment area into the ocean.

A separate spill involving 500 gallons of diesel fuel did enter the port of Saipan, according to the Coast Guard. Coast Guard also confirmed that three vessels were blown from their mooring and were aground Monday in Tanapag Harbor.

Response personnel from Sector Guam’s Incident Management Division along with pollution responders and vessel inspectors from Saipan were dispatched to conduct assessments, mitigate the discharges and to coordinate with local responders to secure the scene.

Sector Guam established an Incident Command Post to coordinate response efforts.

The CNMI acting governor had a phone conversation with Guam Lt. Gov. Ray Tenorio on Monday about the typhoon’s aftermath, Blanco said.

‘Pretty intense’ winds

Saipan resident Jacquelyn Belk, sent Pacific Daily News photos of the typhoon damage, including images of downed power poles and vehicles that were flipped over.

Phone calls to and from Saipan were spotty, but Belk was able to share her thoughts by email. Belk lives on Capitol Hill, near Mount Tapochau, which gets windy even without a typhoon.

"The winds here got pretty intense," she wrote. "The wind busted out my bedroom window and flooded the room. I was terrified that my shutters would break my sliding doors."

When daylight came, she drove to downtown and saw the scope of the damage.

"I saw power lines down everywhere and trees blocking roads. Driving around was like a maze just trying to weave around fallen trees."

Belk lives in a condo with a backup generator. Her power was up Monday, but others weren’t as lucky.

"I saw people’s homes that didn’t have roofs and houses that were caved in. There were damage to people’s cars. Looking around was a disbelief that a storm could cause so much damage."

Stores and gas stations were closed, she wrote.

An Army recruiter, Belkin lived in Miami before moving to Saipan just a few months ago. The tropical storms Belkin experienced in Miami were "nothing like what I experienced yesterday," she wrote.

Phone lines down

Dr. Philip Dauterman wrote in an email from Saipan that most phone lines are down. Most of the island lost power and landline services, he said. Dauterman is lab director for Commonwealth Health Center in Saipan and lab director for Guam Memorial Hospital in Guam.

"From looking at the damage, I would guess weeks to months to restore power. It took about three to six months to restore service on Guam after Pongsona," Dauterman wrote. "This is not the total damage of Pongsona, but it is close."

Pongsona left a trail of devastation in Guam in December 2002.

"I am looking through the debris field, trying to guess the strength of the storm. I am guessing at least Category 3, but then there is some damage that is too severe for Category 3, like the picture of a concrete structure with partial structural failure," Dauterman wrote.

FEMA presence

FEMA sent an advance team to Saipan before the typhoon hit, said Veronica Verde, external affairs specialist for the federal agency. Army Corps of Engineers representatives were assessing the wastewater plant in Saipan, Verde said.

Other federal government representatives are working with FEMA in Saipan, conducting rapid assessments of the power plant, public health and other needs, she said.

As a matter of procedure, FEMA will wait for the CNMI government to submit a report of damage assessment and needs, before determining the federal government’s response.

Individuals who experienced substantial damage to their homes and other property are encouraged to document their damage, in part by taking pictures. After the damage has been documented, residents can start the cleanup and recovery, Verde said.

It’s not necessary to keep the typhoon debris intact, she said. If a couch is soggy, for example, that can be tossed after the damage has been documented, she said. Cleanup can begin after the documentation and when it’s safe to do so, according to FEMA.

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