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Super Typhoon Yutu was the most powerful storm to hit U.S. soil since 1935. The typhoon devastated the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, ripping roofs from thousands of homes and killing one woman.
Here are the stories of five families who are still recovering from the storm two months after it hit the western Pacific archipelago.
SAN JOSE, Tinian — Over the past four months, Marites Hussain, her husband and their four kids have lost their home twice after two separate storms blew through the Marianas. First Typhoon Mangkhut hit in September and demolished the home she was renting from her boss.
Then Yutu pummeled Tinian a month later, wrecking the temporary shack her husband had built after the first storm.
Tinian, an island in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, is home to about 3,500 people. Two months after Yutu hit, 80 percent of the island still doesn’t have electricity. That means paying for a generator or dealing with oppressive heat — even in December, temperatures are still in the mid-80s and the air is thick with humidity, even at night.
The entire island was enveloped in the typhoon’s eye for about half an hour. Despite that, no one died. Hussain believes that’s because police officers went house to house making sure that everyone in an unsafe home took shelter before the storm hit.
On a recent Friday, Hussain sits at a folding table in the temporary shack her husband recently rebuilt. She’s filling out a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, convinced they made a mistake in processing her registration for federal aid.
Hossain has lived on Tinian since 2001, when she moved from the Philippines for work. Because she’s one of thousands of guest workers in the commonwealth and is not a U.S. citizen, she normally wouldn’t be eligible for federal disaster assistance. But her kids are U.S. citizens and so she’s applying under her son’s name.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome, she says the aftermath of the storm brought her and her neighbors together and showed her incredible generosity from strangers.
“Every day line up for free food, free lunch,” she says, describing the immediate aftermath of the storm. Part of her misses the camaraderie of waiting with her neighbors now that there are fewer distribution centers. “Free movie night from Saipan, free McDonald’s for the kids.”
Someone even left an entire turkey at her house on Thanksgiving.
“It’s an overwhelming story,” she says.
SAN ANTONIO, Saipan — Martin “Tina” Villanueva stands in the midst of what used to be her bedroom in the house she shared with 10 family members. Two months after Typhoon Yutu, the roof is missing and the floor is strewn with clothing, toys, an old red phone, broken pieces of furniture.
During the storm Villanueva, 22, and six of her family members took shelter in her auntie’s house. As the windows broke and the wind surged into the home, they moved from the living room to the bedroom and finally to the bathroom where they were trapped for hours after the wind pushed the refrigerator to block the doorway.
When they were finally able to escape, they brought the kids outside one by one, holding hands, running to the car in the pitch black, and drove to their friend’s apartment.
“It was really scary,” Villanueva recalls.
“And then my slipper fly outside!” her niece pipes up.
It’s mid-afternoon and they’re sitting underneath an open-air pavilion on their property in the village of San Antonio. There’s a bed where Tina’s parents sleep, a picnic table and boxes of military rations. Plastic words spelling “Merry Christmas” are strung up above an assortment of Catholic statues, the first things that Villanueva’s mother retrieved from the house the day after the storm.
“Our house is broken, we’re just staying in a pålapåla but since there’s a lot of kids we still have the spirit of Christmas,” Tina explains, using the term for pavilion in Chamorro, the indigenous language in the Marianas and her ethnicity.
The day after the storm, the family returned to their house to find it destroyed and their property covered by debris. But Tina’s father Joseph says it could have been much worse — when they returned to the house where they hid during the storm, there were three large pieces of wood in the bathroom.
“If we don’t get out of there, guarantee we are going to get injured,” he says. He ended up getting hurt anyway when a piece of wood fell on his hand while he was clearing the property.
The family stayed at a shelter for a couple of days, but soon decided it was better to stay home to clean up and wait for FEMA assistance.
The restaurant where Tina was working got damaged and closed. She now spends every day cleaning up and helping her sister cook for her kids and their parents on butane gas stove.
Sometimes it’s tough to figure out what to buy because they can’t keep anything that requires freezing or refrigeration. It’s hard to find fresh fruits and vegetables because so many trees fell down and everything is just starting to grow again.
KASTIYU, Tinian — The house where Daniel Flores lives with his family is missing half its roof. It’s surrounded by jungle, reachable only from an unpaved rocky road.
Flores, 56, says he and his family were renting a house in San Jose, the main village on Tinian, before Yutu. But when the storm came, they hid in this partially concrete home that belongs one of his friends who no longer lives on Tinian.
Even though the kitchen and one bedroom are concrete, that didn’t stop the winds from breaking the windows and debris from flying inside. Flores says his family members were shaking with fear and so he hid them underneath the small kitchen counter for hours.
“When the morning comes we go down (to San Jose village) to look our house — nothing. Only the floor, and then our things scattered around,” he says, explaining nothing from his power tools to the walls were spared.
Only 22 of his 60 chickens were still there — many were dead and others had run away.
The family slept in a tent by their home for two weeks but it was so hot that they moved back to his friend’s concrete house. What was intended to be just an overnight shelter is now their home. Flores doesn’t know what they’ll do if his friend returns to Tinian — there’s no formal rental agreement, and his own rental is gone.
Only one person died during Yutu, but Flores’ wife Pamela says there could have easily been more casualties.
“If my husband didn’t pull the bed (always from the window), I would have died too,” she says.
While Flores waits for money from FEMA to replace their belongings, he’s working on fixing up his friend’s house. Because it’s only partially concrete, his children are still sleeping underneath a tarp.
He’s heard that some other people got money from FEMA to fly elsewhere but he doesn’t want to leave. He moved to Tinian for work from the Philippines 25 years ago. It’s where his job is, where his children were born and where they go to school.
“Maybe we can survive here,” he says.
CHALAN KANOA, Saipan — When Sanry Smith left her island in the outer islands of Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia to move to Saipan four years ago, she looked forward to giving her kids a better education.
Smith’s home island is so rural that she helped build the schoolhouse from coconut tree fronds. Schools in Saipan are better, she says — they’re actually made of concrete. Here, her husband is a boat captain and lifeguard at a local tour company and she stays home to watch their seven children.
At first, Smith moved in with her extended family in the village of Tanapag in northern Saipan. But in 2015, Typhoon Soudelor slammed the northern part of Saipan, destroying two of their families’ three houses that were home to about 40 family members.
So the Smiths moved south to the village of Chalan Kanoa. Then Yutu came, this time devastating southern Saipan.
“And now no more house,” Smith says. After Yutu hit, she stayed in the local nunnery for more than a month. Her husband was out of work temporarily as the island’s tourism economy came to a standstill.
On a recent Tuesday, Smith is nursing her baby and watching her children outside her family’s tent.
Living without power means pouring water into the tank of the toilet in order to use the bathroom. But it can still be peaceful, like this afternoon sitting on a cot outside her tent, watching the sky darken as her daughter strums the ukulele and her other children play.
As Smith explains that she’s waiting to hear back about their disaster aid, her sister stops by to deliver an envelope. Smith’s face lights up as she reads it — it’s her long-awaited check from FEMA.
SAN ANTONIO, Saipan — The afternoon sun beats down on the pavement as David Ito blasts gospel music from his phone, drowning out the sound of waves crashing on the beach just two blocks away.
He’s relaxing in a plastic chair under the shade of an open-air tent with his 4-year-old dog, Puno, who is curled up next to him on the ground.
Ito, 60, lives in his childhood home alone with Puno. But since Yutu, the only thing left of the house he grew up in and lived in for most of his life is the concrete floor and a couple of walls.
He didn’t think the storm would be that strong. He actually went for a bike ride despite the warnings to stay indoors. He finally turned back around 7:30 p.m. and when he got home, his friends were outside his house waiting to take him to safety.
Even so, the storm was terrifying. He saw the wind rip coconut trees from the ground and suspend them in mid-air before dropping them. The gusts blew away his friend’s outdoor kitchen and he had to help hold onto the door for three hours so that it wouldn’t fly open or break.
Ito came back home the next morning to find his house was gone. It had been built after Typhoon Kim in 1969, he says, and withstood many storms, but not Yutu.
Ito works as an airlines customer service representative but couldn’t go back to work right away because flights were suspended . He stayed home for about a month, organizing debris into piles and sleeping on a cot from a nearby hotel. Two weeks ago he got a tent. He says he never lined up for supplies because his dad taught him not to depend on other people for help.
“A lot of people (are) more hungry, more than us,” he says.
He’s not sure how he’ll afford to rebuild his home. Hiring a carpenter may cost as much as $12 per hour, more than what he earns at the airport.
He heard that FEMA was offering to help people like him leave the island. But even though he has siblings in the states, he doesn’t want to go.
“It’s so peaceful. People are kind,” he says. Even though he doesn’t have a house, the island is still his home.
“I was born here. All my life is here,” he says. “This is where the memories are.”
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