Several hours before Super Typhoon Yutu struck the morning of October 25, Harry Blanco was making final preparations for the storm. He boarded up the windows of his house, secured loose objects outside, gathered his valuables in a backpack, and locked his black Labrador, Lady, in the laundry room, where he felt she’d be safe. Then, he—along with thousands of his neighbors in the Northern Mariana Islands—waited in their homes. The remote American territory in the western Pacific would soon face the biggest storm to hit U.S. soil since 1935.
As night fell, Yutu swept toward Blanco’s village on the island of Saipan. The howling outside intensified, and Blanco’s partially wooden home began to buckle in the sustained 180-mph winds. “The house started shaking,” recalls Blanco, a 56-year-old retired U.S. Army colonel. “I started getting scared because it was not fully concrete.” But his bathroom was, so he retreated there. Just after midnight, the roof that covered half of his house was ripped off, and Blanco felt the furious winds trying to suck him up into the air. “I jumped in the bathtub,” he said. “I was holding myself down using the spout ... It was wet, so it was slippery.”
Finally, there was a small break in the wind. Blanco ran to collect a shaking and crying Lady, dashed into a bedroom where the roof was still intact, and took cover under a three-foot desk. The pair crouched together in the dark as the room flooded and the winds screamed. Blanco braced himself for the rest of the roof to tear off. But it held. “We hung in there for the entire typhoon,” he said. “It was close to eight and a half or nine hours, but at least we were safe.”
Blanco was one of more than 50,000 people living in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands when Yutu hit. Typhoons are a fact of life in the region—so much so that people commonly judge a storm’s strength by whether the banana trees are still standing afterward. Many residents had only just finished recovering from Super Typhoon Soudelor, which hit three years ago. Yutu, according to Blanco and others, was even more monstrous. The eye of the cyclone alone engulfed the entire island of Tinian and the southern part of Saipan at once. The two islands, along with Rota, are the major population centers in the CNMI.
Two people were killed, hundreds were injured, and more than 3,000 houses were destroyed, leaving thousands homeless. Much of Saipan and Tinian is expected to go without power for months, and severe water shortages remain—an especially dangerous situation given the intense heat and humidity in the tropical islands. The vital work of debris-clearing continues for an area that several residents, including military veterans, have likened to a battlefield: Massive power lines lie strewn across roads. Metal roofs curl around poles like bits of foil. Homes in village after village have been reduced to rubble. Damage to local airports and logistical decisions that prioritize inbound recovery workers have choked off tourism, which drives the economy here. Elections were postponed to make way for highly coordinated relief efforts from the CNMI government, FEMA, the American Red Cross, the Department of Defense, and local charities.