Satellite imagery provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows Typhoon Yutu as it approached the Northern Mariana Islands. (The New York Times photo)
A devastating supertyphoon slammed into the Northern Mariana Islands starting late Wednesday, destroying more than 100 homes in what meteorologists said could be the strongest storm to have struck the United States this year.
The Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific Ocean, northeast of Guam, include Saipan, Tinian and Rota. They are home to more than 52,000 people, the vast majority of whom live in Saipan.
The eye of the storm, called Yutu, passed directly over Tinian around 2 a.m. local time Thursday — the islands are 14 hours ahead of the East Coast — with wind speeds reaching 180 mph or more, the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane.
Edwin K. Propst, a representative in the commonwealth’s legislature, said he spent a sleepless night at home with his family on Saipan as the worst of the typhoon passed over.
“Last night, it was like a freight train and a 747 were racing, and you’re right in between them,” he said in a phone interview Thursday.
As the storm ripped the shutters off his home and broke windows, he eventually retreated into a back room. But after sunrise, he ventured out to survey the damage.
“I visited several constituents who lost it all,” he said. “Their homes, their valuables, their prized possessions.”
Typhoon warnings were still in effect Thursday morning as reports of the overnight damage rolled in. About 100 homes had been destroyed in Tinian, Brandon Aydlett, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said in a phone call from Guam. He added that in Saipan, there were reports of collapsed roofs, fallen power lines and decimated trees.
“I would say this is catastrophic damage,” Aydlett said, adding that there had been many requests for emergency shelter and medical care but that he did not have concrete information on the number of casualties.
Melanie Castro, 29, said the power went out Wednesday afternoon in her neighbourhood near Micro Beach on the western side of Saipan. She stayed awake all night as the storm swept through.
“We couldn’t sleep because of the noise outside,” she said. “The wind was shouting. We were just hiding and praying.”
On Thursday morning, she went to the restaurant where she works as a waitress. She saw extensive damage and flooding, and she does not know when the business will reopen. But at least the roof was mostly intact, she said — the roof of the restaurant next door was torn off.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump declared an emergency in the Northern Mariana Islands and authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin disaster relief efforts.
Some FEMA workers had arrived in the commonwealth by Thursday morning, said Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, the commonwealth’s delegate in the House of Representatives, in a series of posts on Twitter. He added that ports were closed, many flights were cancelled, several shelters were filling up, and some health care facilities had been damaged or were running on generator power. He urged residents to stay indoors if possible.
The storm was moving northwest, away from the islands, but residents should still watch out for sudden gusts, bands of rain and large ocean swells, Aydlett said, adding that the recovery period from damage already incurred was likely to be long.
“Most people we’ve talked to have no prior storms to compare this one to,” he said. “I believe that Yutu will become a storm that future storms will be compared to.”
Propst said he has not seen a storm this bad in decades and would not be surprised if electricity did not return to Saipan for months. “We really need help,” he said. “Our island has been flattened. It’s one of the worst typhoons we’ve seen in a very, very long time.”