On Oct. 24, 2018, Category 5 Super Typhoon Yutu, tied for 2018’s strongest storm, struck the Northern Mariana Islands at peak intensity, the typhoon’s eye at one point encircling the entire island of Tinian.
Storm surges of more than 20 feet and up to 10 inches of rain fell during the storm, which would later hit the Philippines, South China and Taiwan.
Two WAPA employees deployed in the storm’s aftermath to support power restoration on Saipan and Tinian as ESF-12 representatives.
“When we got to Saipan, there were no cars, no air conditioning, no communications and no water. There wasn’t a power grid when we got there,” said Senior Power Operations Specialist Sean Erickson, who arrived in Guam Oct. 26. “Tinian was just devastated. There were very few structures left standing.”
Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, which includes Saipan, Tinian, Rota and 11 other islands, had only just recovered from Super Typhoon Mangkhut, which made landfall in Guam Sept. 10 as a Category 2 typhoon. Mangkhut would eventually match Yutu in strength, tying it for strongest storm of the year.
“Mangkhut didn’t affect Tinian or Saipan power infrastructure too badly. However, it did affect Guam and Rota infrastructure because the storm passed close by these two islands,” said Power System Construction and Maintenance Advisor Will Schnyer, who arrived in Saipan Nov. 10 and who had also deployed for Mangkhut’s response effort in Guam, Rota and Saipan in September. “Typhoon Yutu, on the other hand, devastated and flattened everything in its wake. The overall devastation I observed on Saipan and Tinian in November 2018 was much worse than what I saw on St. Thomas in November 2017.
The super, super storm
The more than 50,000 people living in the Northern Mariana Islands were almost caught by surprise by Yutu. It had transformed from a tropical storm with wind speeds between 39 and 73 mph into a Category 5 Super Typhoon in less than 30 hours.
With 180 mph sustained winds and 220 mph gusts, Yutu was one of the most intense storms ever to hit the U.S. or its island territories; some media outlets had it listed as the second strongest to do so in recorded history. For comparison, 2012’s Hurricane Sandy collided with the northeast U.S. with winds of 80 mph.
“Even storm-hardened structures fail at 220 mph,” said Erickson. “The lines built with concrete poles were blown over and ripped out of their foundations; wooden poles just snapped in the wind. They could only handle so much. Nothing survived.”
Erickson was fortunate enough to get one of the last running rental cars on the island.
“All the cars that survived the typhoon were luxury vehicles that had been stored indoors,” he said. “So private contractors had convertible Mustangs, the Army Corps of Engineers staff had monster trucks to access the hard-to-reach places around the island and others had drivable but storm-damaged vehicles and had to walk to get to the jobsite.”
Storm recovery for an island is extremely challenging. Saipan and Tinian needed 1,000 concrete poles to rebuild their power grid. A South Korean contractor could only manufacture eight poles per day.
“These are very small islands in the middle of the Pacific ocean,” said Schnyer. “It takes a long time to procure and transport equipment, materials and resources. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are closer to the mainland United States. Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are thousands of miles away.”
Once materials arrived, Erickson and Schnyer worked with the host utilities to get them where they would do the most good.
“Every day more crews showed up as they came from Guam and the other Northern Marina Islands,” said Erickson. “We didn’t want them not working. FEMA worked a lot on staging and getting materials out first.”
Responders figured out a system to keep people working as much as possible. Most of the crews were climbing poles as there were only five bucket trucks on Saipan in those first few weeks.
“The local crews were amazing. I was working 12- to 15-hour days,” said Erickson. “They were working when I drove into work, and they were working when I drove back to the hotel. They were working by headlamp and tailboarding with the dawn.”
Restoring power one step at a time
The first priority for the ESF-12s was to bring essential services back online.
“Our focus was on providing power to water wells, grocery stores, wastewater plants and sewer systems to support FEMA’s mission,” said Erickson. “People understood power had to get to water wells. Getting the sewer system up and running was the second priority. We rebuilt the system with those priorities in mind, bypassing neighborhoods. We only put on load for stability.”
Hotels were upgraded in priority relative to normal power restoration plans because there was nowhere else for displaced people or emergency responders to stay.
“It was hot and buggy and muggy, then it would rain and become hotter and muggier,” said Erickson. “It was miserable.”
By the time Erickson left Nov. 11, about one-third of Saipan’s load was restored. Tinian was still relying on generators provided by the Army Corps of Engineers.
“The islands are resourceful and flexible. Almost all the stores had their own generator,” said Erickson. “For the local Commonwealth Utilities Corporation, this was not their first rodeo. They knew what to do. We returned power much faster than anticipated. Over time, the island had overbuilt the feeder lines to better weather storms. They were able to reuse a lot of materials.”
Finding solutions, removing barriers
When Schnyer arrived for his rotation, some essential services were operational, but many were still without power.
One of Schnyer’s first responsibilities was to help get the Saipan airport onto direct power. The airport could only operate during daylight hours because its generator was unreliable, slowing the delivery of necessary equipment, materials and resources.
“ESF-12’s assist was in overcoming inherent challenges associated with power restoration,” said Schnyer. “Thankfully, all of the groups worked well together, and as a result the airport received direct power a short time later.”
Afterward, the airport director invited everyone involved in the power restoration effort to a potluck lunch at his home.
“He was very appreciative of everyone’s efforts to restore power at the airport and to his house,” said Schnyer. “The airport director, his family, neighbors and relatives put together a great lunch. They said they wanted to ensure those of us away from our homes were shown appreciation for coming to Saipan to help them.”
As of Jan. 3, Tinian had restored power to about 50 percent of its residents with an expected 100 percent energized rate by Feb. 17. Saipan had an energized rate of 90 percent.
The Yutu response was Schnyer’s second ESF-12 experience and Erickson’s first. Both had trained to become ESF-12s after WAPA’s disaster response in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“I really enjoyed serving the people of Saipan and Tinian the second time I was asked to deploy as an ESF-12. I was able to use my skills in the field more than the first time I deployed,” said Schnyer. “I love being around line crews because they are at their best when rebuilding damaged powerline infrastructure after a major weather event impacts a power system. There is immense personal satisfaction serving and helping others restore power whether you are a lineman or a responder.”
“We do what we can to prepare the utility so when we leave, they got this,” Erickson added.
“I learned the people are loving, grateful and very hospitable,” said Schnyer. “One day early in my deployment I was in a convenience store to purchase water and was in line to pay. When I got to the cashier, she refused to take any money. She said a person ahead of me had already paid for it. This type of scenario took place on many occasions. The islanders demonstrated time and again how very appreciative they were of our efforts to help them restore power and to bring a sense of normalcy to their island.”
Both responders were also grateful to WAPA’s senior leadership, their supervisors and coworkers for allowing them to take time away from their normal duties to participate in restoration events.
“It’s appreciated that WAPA employees support the ESF-12 program,” said Schnyer. “FEMA really relies on the Department of Energy ESF-12s to assist them when a natural disaster strikes. We lend our professional knowledge, skills, abilities and experience to help facilitate the reestablishment of damaged energy systems and components. Even though we deploy as ESF-12 responders, we also deploy as representatives of WAPA.”
“We couldn’t do it without the support here,” said Erickson. “Everyone was very responsive. It was a great experience. I’m glad I got to go and am ready to go again when we’re needed.”
What is ESF-12?
Emergency Support Function representatives primarily serve as liaisons between local authorities and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which does not necessarily have the specialized experience or enough people to make decisions on the number of issues that need attention following a natural disaster.
Contract and island crews repair a distribution line on Saipan
after Super Typhoon Yutu in October 2018. Two WAPA employees
were sent to Saipan as Emergency Support Function-12 representatives
to help prioritize work, identify needed materials, liaise with FEMA
and remove roadblocks to restoration. (Photo by Sean Erickson)