American Red Cross volunteer Bob Pearce recently returned from deployment to Saipan where he worked directly with more than 400 people affected by Typhoon Soudelor. New to the Red Cross, the typhoon relief operation in Saipan was Bob’s first large-scale response. He’s already responding to his second, serving as a virtual volunteer from his home base in Minnesota for the Red Cross response to the wildfires in California. Below, Bob shares with us his Saipan experience.
Information about Typhoon Soudelor and its damage may be interesting, but it doesn’t tell the real or whole story. Many of the Red Cross volunteers used the term resilient to describe the islanders. Others said they were patient. For me, the people of Saipan are remarkable.
Saipan is a 12 by 5.5 mile island in the south Pacific. Guam, Tinian, Rota and Saipan form the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, a United States Territory. With a small garment manufacturing industry in continuing decline, the 53,883 residents of Saipan have relied on tourism to help their economy. So, when Typhoon Soudelor slammed into the island in the late night and early morning hours of August 2 and 3, 2015, damage was felt in more than one way.
Winds from the Category III Typhoon broke the NWS anemometer on Saipan at 91mph. Whatever their speed, the winds were sufficient to snap off over 300 power poles on the island, far exceeding the 80-some spares stored for an emergency. Rain and wind-driven sea water also damaged generating plants, further hampering infrastructure recovery. Without power, processing and delivery of fresh and waste water were still further casualties of the storm.
Cleanup of splintered and downed trees from roads began immediately. Hotels and a few businesses, including gas stations, fired up emergency generators and began providing needed services during daylight hours.
The U.S. Navy moved three ships from Guam to Saipan to provide fresh water for the island. People drove cautiously through intersections formerly controlled by traffic signals. And neighbors helped neighbors dig out from the remains of their homes. The same winds and water that knocked out electrical power and stopped road traffic, had also destroyed or seriously damaged well over 500 homes, and many hundreds of other residences were also damaged to some extent.
In the first hours after the typhoon, the Northern Mariana Islands Chapter of the American Red Cross mobilized ten core volunteers plus a trained group of 14 other local volunteers. Together with chapter staff, this initial response force began providing immediate assistance to many of the more than 2000 people who called for help. Gradually, the chapter response was supplemented by volunteers from “the mainland,” which is the islanders’ term for the continental U.S. Minnesota provided four of those volunteers, who served in Disaster Health Services (DHS), Disaster Services Technology (DST), and client casework.
Local residents began lining up at the chapter office early each morning, well before the generator was started, DST had reset all systems, and the doors were opened. With daily preparations and briefings completed, health services and client casework volunteers began seeing local residents by 9:00 each morning, and continued well into the evening until there were no more lines. Estimates of the number of clients seen ranged from 200 to 500 daily, seven days a week, for the first couple of weeks. Direct Assistance to Saipan Households (DASH), ranged from cans of food, bottles of water, and bags of rice, to financial assistance cards for people to use for disaster-related needs.
Saipan definitely has a slower lifestyle than many of us are accustomed to, yet there’s more to the calm and peace that the residents exhibit. Each client greeted us with a warm smile and a firm handshake. Every interview was the start of a new day. One after another, they thanked the Red Cross volunteers for being there. Most of the islanders have little compared to what many of us have. On the other hand, they have so much. They are happy, generous and content. Saipan is unique and its people exceptional in the face of disaster.