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Worst storm in nearly 100 years leaves U.S. islands devastated

Yutu appears to be the second-worst storm ever to hit U.S. soil.

Cars on a road on Saipan Island, one of the Northern Mariana Islands, in the Pacific Ocean. (PHOTO CREDIT: Yuri Smityuk, TASS via Getty Images)
Cars on a road on Saipan Island, one of the Northern Mariana Islands, in the Pacific Ocean. (PHOTO CREDIT: Yuri Smityuk, TASS via Getty Images)

An unprecedented super typhoon just became the strongest storm of the year in the country and the worst to hit U.S. soil in more than 80 years.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said Thursday that Super Typhoon Yutu is one of the strongest storms in history after it lashed Tinian and Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory. According to Weather Underground, Yutu appears to be the fifth-strongest storm ever to make landfall globally, and the second-strongest ever to hit U.S. soil after only a 1935 hurricane that hit the Florida Keys.

The storm is also tied for the strongest to strike anywhere on earth in 2018 — with winds of around 180 miles per hour, Yutu reached Category 5 intensity by the time it made landfall on Wednesday. Seven of the 10 strongest landfalls in recorded world history have occurred since 2006, a statistic Weather Underground called “ominous.”

Typhoons are notably interchangeable with hurricanes — both are tropical cyclones, but hurricanes refer to storms in the Atlantic Ocean and northeastern Pacific Ocean while typhoons refer to those in the northwestern Pacific Ocean.

While no deaths have been reported so far following Yutu, local officials are only just beginning to assess the damage and warned Thursday that the situation appears bleak for residents.

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“Tinian has been devastated by Typhoon Yutu,” said Mayor Joey P. San Nicolas in a video posted to Facebook. “The homes, many homes have been destroyed. Our critical infrastructure has been compromised. We currently have no power and water at this time — our ports at this time are inaccessible, and several other points within the island are inaccessible.”

Access to many parts of the island remains “very limited,” the mayor cautioned, but he emphasized that Tinian’s residents remain resilient in the face of trauma. The Washington Post reported Thursday that Saipan’s health center is running on emergency power, while the center in Tinian has “sustained major damage.”

Around 52,000 people live on the islands, with the majority based in Saipan and some 6 percent in Tinian. Yutu is one of only four Category 5 super typhoons to come within 75 miles of the Northern Marianas, with the last being 2004’s Typhoon Chaba.

Prior to Yutu’s arrival, the National Weather Service warned residents that “most industrial buildings will be destroyed” and cautioned that homes were likely to collapse. President Donald Trump declared a disaster prior to Yutu’s arrival and over 100 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) personnel are on-hand to help in the Northern Marianas. Many FEMA officers were readily available because they were already in Guam, assisting after Typhoon Mangkhut.

Yutu is still a major storm but it is expected to weaken as it moves out into the ocean and towards the Philippines and Taiwan. In a statement, Homeland Security and Emergency Management Special Assistant Gerald J. Deleon Guerrero said the storm’s impact will resonate for a long time to come.

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“We just went though one of the worst storms I’ve seen in all my experience in emergency management,” Guerrero said.

The super typhoon marks a continuation in a bleak pattern for the United States. In only 24 hours, Yutu went from a Category 1 storm to a Category 5, leaving residents with little time to fully prepare. That echoes Hurricane Michael’s swift build-up two weeks ago, when the Category 4 storm slammed the Florida Panhandle, the third-most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall in the United States.

Hurricane Florence, another unprecedented storm, hit North Carolina as a Category 1 storm in September, after passing over warmer-than-average waters. That warming trend, experts believe, allowed the storm to supercharge and then stall over land, drenching the state and leaving the Carolinas devastated.

That trend extends beyond the United States. Typhoon Mangkhut left more than 100 dead in September after it hit parts of Southeast and East Asia. Earlier this week, Hurricane Willa made landfall as a Category 3 storm in Mexico, continuing what scientists have pointed to as the “most active hurricane season on record” for the eastern Pacific.

Climate scientists have pointed to global warming as a key factor in last year’s hurricane season, which saw Hurricane Harvey devastate southeastern Texas shortly before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. The island is still struggling to recover more than a year later.