Typhoon Yutu causes collapse of students' houses in Saipan

By Hannah Sievert | October 29, 2018 12:12pm
John Costales' home in Saipan after the storm. Costales is a freshman engineering major at UP. Photo courtesy of Costales.

The typhoon that rolled across the Northern Mariana Islands last week has caused the collapse of the homes of at least two UP students. 

Many communities on the islands of Saipan, Tinian and Rota were left devastated by Super Typhoon Yutu, which passed over late last Wednesday night and into Thursday morning. The typhoon’s winds were recorded at up to 178 miles per hour, making it the strongest recorded storm to ever hit the U.S. or its territories, according to USAToday. The typhoon is now scheduled to hit the Philippines early Tuesday, Philippines time.

In Saipan, an island of around 52,000 people, the storm caused extensive damage to houses, hotels, businesses, schools and other buildings. The winds knocked down power lines and caused massive power outages and loss of cell service for those on the island. Access to drinking water on the island is limited. One casualty and over 100 injuries were reported after the storm.

Cars were flipped in the storm in Saipan. Photo courtesy of Zena Demapan.

Several students who are from Saipan are now facing the reality of the storm’s damage while going to school thousands of miles away in Portland. The students have limited cell connection to their families and friends, leaving them with many concerns and little information. 

Last Wednesday, junior psychology major Mary Grace Tiglao knew that the storm was scheduled to hit the south side of Saipan, where her home is and her mother lives. Tiglao said she couldn’t focus in class and tried to keep in contact with her mom throughout the day before the cell service between them eventually went out.

“The last message I got from her was, please just keep praying,” Tiglao said. “She said the walls of our house were shaking...I didn’t know if she was safe or not.”

After the storm passed, Tiglao received a call from her mom, who said that her childhood home in Saipan had collapsed in the storm. Tiglao’s mother said the roof had been torn off, the ceiling fell in and all of their belongings are wet and damaged. Tiglao’s mother had to climb out of the ceiling pieces to escape the house.

“It’s a lot to take in,” Tiglao said. “I can’t even fully comprehend. I lived in that house all my life. All of my stuff was there. My parents put so much effort into building and maintaining that house for the past 20 years.”

Tiglao’s mom is currently attempting to salvage parts of their house and is sleeping in her car, according to Tiglao, who received another call from her mom Sunday night. 

John Costales, a freshman electrical engineering major, heard from his family in Saipan that his house had collapsed in the storm as well. His family was able to get a call through to him on Friday morning to say they were safe.

Costales said his family didn’t initially communicate the severity of the damage because his parents wanted him to focus on school. Costales found out the details of the damage from his sister: the roof of his childhood home had collapsed, the walls had fallen in and only one wall remains standing. Costales said he thinks his family is now in a shelter or a hotel, but isn’t sure because of their limited communication.

“It’s really frustrating being so far away,” Costales said. “Obviously you wouldn’t want to be in that situation, but then just knowing your family, your friends, your loved ones are there suffering through that, it kind of makes you want to be there with them. Suffer through it together; rebuild together.”

Zena Demapan, a senior biology major from Saipan, said her mom also initially downplayed the severity of the storm when she talked to her last week because she didn’t want Demapan to worry for her family. Demapan’s family in Saipan includes her mother, stepdad, two older sisters and seven nieces and nephews.

After the storm, Demapan heard from her mom on Wednesday that her house remained standing and their cars hadn’t been flipped or damaged. But the roof on her step-father’s massage therapy clinic had been ripped off in the storm and his equipment had been damaged with flooding. 

Zena Demapan's step-father's message​ therapy clinic. Photo courtesy of Demapan. 

Demapan had to wait a few more days before she heard from her sisters, who live separately from her parents. Her oldest sister has six young children and her middle sister has a newborn baby.

“That was one of the most emotional experiences, waiting for that call...I was losing my mind not being able to hear from them,” Demapan said.

She heard back from her siblings on Friday morning. Demapan knows they are safe but doesn’t know many other details of where they are living or the condition of their houses. The uncertainty of what her family is going through is difficult to process while at school, she said.

“Every day I call her (my mom) in tears because I don’t know what is going on,” Demapan said. “I never in my entire life thought a call home would contain a question of, ‘do you have enough food or water today?’” 

The students from Saipan said the uncertainty of their family’s predicament makes it difficult for them to focus on school while they await updates from their families and friends.

“Just today I had a really important exam to take, and in hearing this news, there wasn’t a single moment I could focus on my schoolwork,” Demapan said.

“It’s definitely hard,” Tiglao said. “This week I have a lot of things due. It is what it is. My mom would tell me to focus on my studies. That’s all I can do for now. But it’s going to be really hard to stay in class and stay engaged.”

The students said it is difficult, too, that not many people at school know about the extent of the damage from the storm. President Trump on Wednesday declared the storm to be a major disaster and authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin disaster relief efforts, although he hasn’t spoken about the typhoon publically. 

Many people have argued that the storm didn’t get enough media coverage. Some of the students from Saipan are trying to spread awareness of the storm and donation efforts through social media and emails to professors and friends.

“I was not angry at the people around me, but the fact that we are a U.S. territory and celebrity breakups make more coverage in the news than my entire island being in devastation,” Demapan said. 

She sent a mass email to her professors on Friday that included photos of the storm’s damage and asked them to spread awareness or consider donating. 

Photo courtesy of Zena Demapan.

For the students, it could be several months or years before they return to Saipan to see their families and friends. With the loss of electricity, Saipan’s airport is offering limited flights to the island. Tiglao plans on returning to the island over winter break. Demapan hopes to return after she graduates in December. And Costales doesn’t plan on returning until 2021, after he graduates. 

The storm’s impact is similar to the damage of Typhoon Soudelor, which hit Saipan in 2015. After Soudelor, the island was without power for up to four months. It’s not known now how long it will take to return power to Saipan after Yutu, although it could be several months. 

In Saipan, people are currently living in emergency shelters and are waiting for more aid from the federal government. Thousands of miles away, in Portland, students from Saipan hope for more information from their families and support from their Portland community.

“I really don’t know where people are going right now,” Demapan said. “I really have no idea. What I hear is that people are simply homeless.” 

For more information on how to donate to the Typhoon Yutu recovery effort, visit http://yuturelief.com.