The most powerful storm of the year, Super Typhoon Yutu, just blew through the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific, wreaking havoc on the islands of Saipan and Tinian.

Although more than a thousand people became homeless overnight, many storm victims are ineligible for crucial disaster funding that could help them rebuild their homes and businesses.

That’s because federal cash assistance is limited to U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals or immigrants with green cards.

People who are born in U.S. states or territories — such as Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands — are U.S. citizens and thus eligible to apply for aid in the wake of a natural disaster. So are U.S. nationals who are from American Samoa.

A family from Chuuk walks along the beach on Saipan after their home was flooded during Super Typhoon Yutu. Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia aren’t eligible for cash assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Courtesy of Leni Leon

But the Northern Mariana Islands are home to many people who immigrated from other Pacific or Asian nations and don’t have green cards. The commonwealth has a special guest worker system that allows up to 13,000 foreign workers to have temporary contracts. Many other residents are undocumented.

For decades, the U.S. commonwealth has also been home to immigrants from other islands in Micronesia— the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau and Federated States of Micronesia. Citizens of these islands nations are legally allowed to live and work in the U.S. under treaties known as the Compact of Free Association. They pay taxes but are cut off from many federal programs including Medicaid and food stamps.

Typhoon Yutu victims are learning that federal disaster assistance is no different.

David Gervino, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says that citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia who have U.S. citizen children under the age of 18 can apply for cash assistance. But those who don’t have American kids, or whose children have grown up or moved away, will have to look elsewhere for help.

Eldon Alik, the Marshall Islands Consul General in Springdale, Arizona, didn’t realize until Monday that FEMA cash assistance was yet another program that he and others with his legal status can’t access.

“Like everything else, we find out when we encounter the problem,” Alik says.

Alik, who has been living in the U.S. for 37 years, says denial of assistance to disaster victims is unjust.

“We’re allowed to join the military, we pay taxes, we’re allowed to come and work and live,” he says. “But when disaster happens, we can’t get any aid.”

Filling In The Gaps

There’s no official count of how many people affected by Yutu aren’t eligible for FEMA cash assistance.

But Grace Sablan Vaiagae is trying to fix that. Vaiagae grew up on Saipan but her mother is from Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia. She knows she’s lucky to be a U.S. citizen and has been traveling from village to village, shelter to shelter, to figure out how many are in need.

As of last week, Vaiagae counted nearly 100 citizens from the Federated States of Micronesia in Saipan shelters, about 10 percent of the shelter population at that time. That’s a preliminary number and doesn’t include people from Palau, the Marshall Islands, guest workers or undocumented immigrants.

A Palauan family cleans up debris on Saipan after Super Typhoon Yutu. Citizens of the Republic of Palau are legal immigrants but aren’t eligible for federal disaster cash assistance. Courtesy of Leni Leon

Vaiagae says the Northern Mariana Islands community is working together to fill in the gaps in aid. They’re also getting help from across the ocean from island nations and communities on the mainland, Hawaii and Guam. The Republic of Palau held a fundraiser last week to help the estimated 1,000 Palauans affected by the storm, and the Federated States of Micronesia is fundraising as well. The Philippine Consul General from Guam also distributed supplies to hundreds of overseas Filipino workers in the commonwealth.

“It is what it is,” Vaiagae says of the lack of access to FEMA funding. “We just got to find a way to get help.”

Gervino from FEMA emphasized that typhoon victims in the Northern Mariana Islands still have access to many local services regardless of citizenship, including shelters and relief drives that provide food, water, tents and other supplies.

The local relief efforts mirror similar work on Guam after several COFA citizens became homeless in the wake of Typhoon Mangkhut earlier this year. Ed Wengu from the Micronesian Resource Center One-Stop Shop on Guam says the organization helped house the affected families.

“We had to really work with different service providers, different housing corporations and try to find creative ways to help the families displaced by Mangkhut,” Wengu says.

Alik — the Marshall Islands Consul General in Springdale, Arkansas — hasn’t heard of a similar problem happening in the states but it’s a worrisome possibility.

Tens of thousands of immigrants from Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia have settled across the U.S. in states including but not limited to Hawaii, California, Oregon, Idaho, Texas, Oklahoma, Utah, Arkansas and Minnesota.

If a violent weather event affected the more than 10,000 Marshallese people living in Arkansas and they weren’t eligible for federal help, “that would be a disaster,” Alik says. He hopes the issue can be fixed by the U.S. Congress or by negotiators for the COFA treaties.

“Something has to be done,” he says.

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