Responding to the worst hurricane in the United States since 1935

Super Typhoon Yutu made landfall in the U.S. territory of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) in the early hours of 25 October 2018, presenting a unique challenge to responders trying to reach these remote Pacific islands.

This second strongest storm system in U.S. history caused significant damage to CNMI. The strong winds of Super Typhoon Yutu significantly damaged nearly half the homes on the southern end of Saipan and also took out the entire power grid in Tinian, leaving residents with no electricity or safe water sources.


Damage from Super Typhoon Yutu on the island of Tinian. Photo by Jason Cowan – Nov 9, 2018


Not many people know that CNMI— comprising of Rota, Tinian, Saipan, and a number of smaller islands—is a territory of the United States. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) responds when a disaster is declared for an event that affects these islands.


FEMA tent sitting next to what remains of a residence on the island of Tinian. Photo by Camille Hesterberg – Dec 3, 2018


Generally, in the initial days after a hurricane strikes (the term “typhoon” is used for hurricanes in the western North Pacific), access to food, water, and shelter are of paramount importance. Lifesaving and life-sustaining commodities are typically brought in by land from unaffected neighboring communities.

This was not an option for CNMI, which is located over 1,800 miles from the nearest landmass—Asia, over 3,850 miles from Hawaii, and around 5,850 miles from the California coast. The isolated location of the islands presented a challenge for the disaster response and the efficient transport of supplies and personnel to and between the various islands.

In the recent cases of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, when land transport to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico was not an option, commodities were transported by sea and air. The time it took for these modes of transport was comparable to that of travel by land, however, because these territories are located in close proximity to the U.S. mainland.

When Super Typhoon Yutu devastated CNMI, no quick transport method was available for the large-scale movement of life-essential supplies. An aircraft carrying cargo from Hawaii, for example, would be in flight for almost 8 hours, with additional time required for loading and off-loading supplies. By comparison, the same aircraft can cross from the East Coast to the West Coast of the mainland United States in around 5 hours.

Despite the long flight times to the Marianas, airlift operations offered the quickest option for moving life-essential supplies to the remote communities of Tinian and Saipan. Fortunately, a FEMA Distribution Center located on the nearby U.S. territory of Guam, which only experienced localized and small-scale damage from the storm, offered immediate supplies to the hard-hit islands. In the days following Yutu’s landfall, U.S. military aviation units in Guam, Hawaii, and Japan moved lifesaving cargo to affected communities, while additional supplies were prepared for transport from Hawaii and California.

IEM’s Air Ops teams became an important component of the disaster response, helping with the efficient tracking of critical supplies and the support of air operations. The first IEM Air Ops team arrived in Guam within a week of the typhoon strike. Contracted by FEMA, the IEM team began providing logistical and planning support to track supplies and relief workers deployed to Saipan and Tinian.

As responders began to assess damage and determine the need for life-sustaining supplies such as bulk water, temporary shelters, and generators, the IEM Air Ops team began consolidating flight schedules for all response-related aircraft, whether commercial or military. On the ground, the team worked with local airport authorities, FEMA Logistics, and military contingency response personnel to track aircraft, cargo, and personnel movements, despite the significant damage to the Saipan and Tinian airports.


IEM-provided air stairs leading up to a Boeing 747 Freightliner. Photo by Leah Norris – Nov 17, 2018


Initially, IEM teams were stationed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and at the Guam, Saipan, and Tinian international airports. The teams tracked aircraft arrivals and departures, cataloged cargo inventory, and manifested passengers. IEM airlift subject matter experts assigned to the Saipan-based Joint Field Office (JFO) migrated documentation from a paper-based system to a computer-based system in order to provide real-time reporting and recording of all response-related air operations.


Damaged jet bridge used for commercial flights at Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport. Photo by Camille Hesterberg – Dec 4, 2018


Within 2 weeks of the storm, aircraft began bringing in life-sustaining cargo, including building supplies for constructing more permanent shelters. At the start of December, large power poles arrived to enable electricity grid restoration after over a month of reliance on generators. The people of Saipan and Tinian showed no delay in recovering and rebuilding their communities. As an example, IEM’s Air Ops team inventoried a cargo load of power poles one morning and, by that same evening, the local workforce was already putting the poles up along major roadways.

Plywood and lumber were also distributed quickly, with military response teams spending long days in the blazing sun securing tin roof shelters. Such shelters provide better protection than tarps and tents while also allowing people to return to their homes until permanent reconstruction of homes can begin.


Navy personnel installing temporary roofing to damaged home on island of Tinian. Photo by Camille Hesterberg – Dec 3, 2018


Despite the destruction wrought by Typhoon Yutu, IEM’s provision of expert air operations support facilitated a whole community response and bolstered the resiliency of the people of the Northern Mariana Islands. The delayed arrival of supplies due to the isolation of the islands did not hinder the speed of rebuilding and recovery.

Now, as ships are arriving with additional construction materials, FEMA and other response stakeholders can look to IEM’s air operations as a best practice for quickly bringing in lifesaving and life-sustaining supplies and disaster responders for hard-to-reach communities, like those of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam.


Thank you sign on the front of a gas station on the island of Tinian. Photo by Camille Hesterberg – Dec 3, 2018


Sign made out of tin debris reading “One heart, One Marianas. #MarianasSTRONG” next to a damaged jet bridge that storm winds blew off of airport property at Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport. Photo by Leah Norris – Dec 6, 2018


Author: Camille Hesterberg, Communications Specialist, IEM