CHALAN KANOA, Saipan — Elkanah Igisaiar watches her daughter climb onto an old car and lift herself up onto the branches of a tree. It’s late afternoon on the Wednesday before Christmas and Igisaiar is sitting in a plastic chair outside at her family’s compound in this tiny village in southern Saipan.
The cluster of homes down the street from the island’s cathedral is where her family has lived for generations.
But since Super Typhoon Yutu blew through her neighborhood in October, her mother’s house is uninhabitable — and their street is now a cluster of tents.
“Most of us are not really ready to talk about the storm,” says Igisaiar, 27. “We are just kind of in disbelief that we went from something to nothing.”
Two months after the worst storm to hit the U.S. since 1935, thousands of people like Igisaiar are still sleeping in tents or outdoors. They’re waiting for electricity to go back on. And they are wondering how they’ll afford to rebuild their homes even if they are lucky enough to get some federal aid.
Despite the severity of the storm, there’s been little news media coverage of what life is like in its aftermath. The islands are thousands of miles away from the mainland U.S. and the storm had only one reported casualty.
But the low death toll belies how drastically Yutu continues to affect thousands of people.
Before Yutu, there were fewer than 100 homeless people sleeping outdoors on the island of Saipan, the capital of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Despite widespread poverty — more than half of the community was below the U.S. poverty line and the median income was $19,201 in 2016 — it was rare to see people living in tents.
But overnight, the storm displaced an estimated 15,000 to 17,000 people, more than a quarter of the commonwealth’s population of about 55,000 people.
Severe storms are common in the Mariana Islands, an archipelago in the western Pacific that includes Guam. Three years ago, another storm downed half of Saipan’s power poles, leaving some families without electricity for three months.
The expectation that every year will bring extreme weather events means government buildings and schools are built from concrete to withstand strong winds.
More than 80 percent of houses had concrete walls as of 2016, and more than half had concrete roofs. Locals are well-versed in the annual rituals of buying nonperishable food, filling buckets of water and boarding up windows to protect them from flying debris.
But Yutu exceeded expectations.
Its 180-mph sustained winds with gusts over 200 mph broke the National Weather Service’s wind instruments, flipped over containers and ripped off thousands of roofs. Families hid beneath cabinets, under beds and inside bathrooms to stay safe. Even elderly people who had survived countless typhoons on the islands say they feared for their lives. One woman was killed by a collapsing building.
Igisaiar was in her second-floor apartment during the storm, watching roofs flying off her neighbors’ homes. She saw one family trying to escape their house, temporarily blocked by a huge piece of tin that flew onto their doorway. As they crawled underneath to get out, Igisaiar’s boyfriend went downstairs to urge them to hide in their apartment.
By the time the sun rose, Igisaiar says several neighbors were sheltering with her, her boyfriend and four children.
The storm damaged so many public schools that students didn’t have classes for more than a month and still only have half-days. The tourism-based economy came to a standstill, with fewer than 6,000 visitors in November, down from 48,000 the previous year.
Two months later, debris has been cleared from many villages and the economy is rebounding. It’s once again common to see tourists on the sidewalks and their bubble-gum-colored convertible rental cars on the roads.
But on the southern side of Saipan and throughout the neighboring island of Tinian, families are still sifting through the wreckage of their lives, sleeping outdoors and waiting for the electricity to be turned back on. The storm destroyed or severely damaged more than 5,000 houses, some of which were home to multiple families.
And unlike disasters on the U.S. mainland, victims can’t just drive to the next county to find another place to live.
There aren’t enough undamaged units on the islands of Saipan and Tinian to house everyone who has been displaced. Instead of handing out rental subsidies like they did after Hurricane Michael and Hurricane Florence, federal disaster responders have passed out more than 1,700 tents along with military rations.
“When you’ve been hit like this, things get real primal real fast and we understand that so our objective is to provide a safe and sanitary living arrangement,” says Victor Inge, a FEMA spokesman based on Saipan.
The housing shortage is so severe that FEMA is calling families and offering to buy them plane tickets out of the islands. So far, 29 households have taken advantage of the program and have booked tickets to Hawaii and other states.
But even though more than 3,600 people are eligible to leave, the vast majority are choosing to stay. Igisaiar’s family is Carolinian, an indigenous Micronesian community that sailed in canoes to the Marianas in the 19th century after a typhoon devastated the Caroline Islands.
Although Yutu was the worst storm she’s seen in her life, Igisaiar says she wouldn’t leave the Marianas even if FEMA gave her money to do so.
She doesn’t want her kids to miss more school. She’s worried about their house.
“If we leave, there’s nothing that can be done with our house,” Igisaiar says. “If we go, how are we going to get the assistance?”
Igisaiar felt lucky at first. She didn’t lose her roof. But the next day she says her landlord asked her to move out anyway because of the hazards posed by the damaged apartment building.
They took just their clothes and one bed, leaving their children’s beds and their refrigerator. They drove to what was left of the house of her mother, Rufina Angui, in Chalan Kanoa.
The U.S. military built the house out of wood and tin 30 years ago after Typhoon Kim destroyed the previous house, Rufina Angui says.
Angui was 27 then. Now 57, it’s the first time in her life that she’s been homeless. The heat and the mosquitoes aren’t the only challenge — the lack of power means she can’t use the breathing machine she relies on to help with her sleep apnea.
Angui only recently moved back to the house and started sleeping in the tent. During and immediately after the typhoon, she stayed at her brother’s house, which is concrete, while Igisaiar and her boyfriend tried to fix up the Chalan Kanoa house.
It was too dangerous to sleep inside the broken house at first, so Igisaiar and her boyfriend lay pallets outside and secured a tarp over them to block the rain. Igisaiar’s boyfriend, a construction worker, missed work for three weeks to help clean up. They stacked plywood, tin and debris in separate piles along the roadside.
Even though there were shelters available, they slept outside and cleaned. They worried about missing their FEMA inspection if they weren’t around. Plus, who would fix up what was left of the house if they weren’t there?
But increasingly Igisaiar realized fixing the house was an impossible task. The mold made her sick — it started with a cough but progressed to a sinus infection until she couldn’t hear or smell well.
When Angui saw her three weeks after the storm, her daughter was so weak that she was having a hard time breathing. Igisaiar didn’t want to leave her kids, but Angui convinced her to go to the hospital.
The first 24 hours after the storm, no one went to the emergency room of the hospital on Saipan. And then suddenly the ER was flooded with twice as many patients as on a normal day — so many that there weren’t enough beds in the ER.
The flow of injuries has slowed over the past two months but hospital officials say that the disaster has illuminated the major gaps in health care coverage. Temporary clinics set up in devastated villages revealed that nearly half of patients were uninsurable because they were guest workers, undocumented immigrants or citizens of Pacific island nations who are ineligible for Medicaid.
Esther Muna, the CEO of the local public hospital, says she’s currently most worried about mental illnesses. She’s seen patients with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and says there’s been a spate of recent suicides.
Food safety is another concern. Commonwealth officials say they had just reached their goal of providing 24-hour water to all villages on Saipan in September, and storm damage has set them back again.
Many locals say that the U.S. government’s response to Yutu is much better than it was for Soudelor, another powerful storm that hit Saipan three years ago.
But a speedy recovery is hindered by the islands’ distance from the rest of the U.S. The Mariana Islands are at least an eight-hour flight from Hawaii, not including a stop in Guam. Disaster responders have to ship in everything from concrete poles to tents, lumber, tin, wire, transformers, even screws.
It’s even harder to reach the island of Tinian, which is between Guam and Saipan and home to about 3,500 people, similar to the island of Lanai in Hawaii.
The entire island was engulfed by the eye of the storm. At the commuter airport on Saipan that facilitates flights to Tinian, airplanes were destroyed, preventing travel for days. Passengers now buy tickets from a makeshift airport building made out of containers and tents.
Staff of the Tinian Health Center, an outpost of the public hospital, hid in the radiology room to survive the storm. Ninety percent of the 35-member staff lost their homes, Muna says.
Things have been a lot easier ever since Igisaiar got back from the ER. She wishes she remembered the name of the doctor who helped her and got her family a tent to sleep in.
Sleeping inside the tent is a huge improvement over sleeping under the tarp, even though it’s hot during the day.
Life now consists of waiting. Waiting until FEMA tells her mother and aunt how much money they qualify for, waiting until they can figure out what to do with the house and how much it will cost to rebuild it.
She’s thought about selling her families’ goats — they have seven, with names like Olaf and Elsa. But she wants to keep them because her kids love them. Plus, in Carolinian culture you’re supposed to value gifts more than things you buy.
She thought about applying to FEMA for funds to make up for losing their cell phones and appliances when their apartment flooded during the typhoon. But she decided against it.
“For me, those are nothing,” she says. “There are other people that just totally lost everything so why not give it to the people that need it the most?”
She did apply for money from the Red Cross and used the $750 to buy school supplies and clothes for her kids.
Every morning, she goes to buy ice so that her kids can have cold water. She spends the day watching her children and helping her mom. They have even started volunteering at Empty Vessel, a Christian social service organization that hands out clothes to those in need.
Angui says she’s tired of eating canned goods, but the family knows it’s lucky to have food stamps.
“We’re not hungry,” Angui says.
To learn about how a powerful storm could affect Hawaii, click here to read Civil Beat’s special report, “Are We Ready?”
Everyone at Civil Beat feels the weight of heightened responsibility. For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.
The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.
Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.