PNC’s Journey to Ground-Zero: Part I

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PNC's Joycelynn Atalig and Allan Balbin on Star Marianas flight to Saipan

Guam – Determined to gain first-hand accounts of what it was like to stare straight into the eye of Super Typhoon Yutu, PNC embarks on a journey to ground-zero, Saipan and Tinian.

Day 1:

We departed Guam at around 1:30 Monday afternoon and set course to Saipan onboard Star Marianas, a regional commercial airline, in fact, the very first commercial carrier to resume operations a day after Super Typhoon Yutu devastated the two northernmost inhabited islands in the Marianas archipelago.

We landed on Saipan, and pulled up to the right of the small commuter airport where Star Marianas is stationed. We deplaned and were led by staff to a side-gate where a couple of pop-up canopies stood. We were then directed to one of them, to check in for our next flight, this was apparently the airline’s temporary base of operations after their commuter airport was demolished by Yutu.  

Immediately after arriving on Saipan, we took another Star Marianas flight to the island of Tinian, piloted by Shaun Christian, President of the company. On board the single-engine aircraft, we flew over Tinian on an executive fly-over tour and absorbed the unimaginable destruction left in Yutu’s wake.

A once luscious greenery was now practically bare. Trees were either topless or uprooted, homes were exposed to the elements with their roofs not too far away, cars were piled atop each other and this scenery extended for miles.

Touchdown on Tinian, the island directly under Yutu’s eye and we were picked up by Alexis Hofschneider, PIO for the island’s Municipal Operations Center. She took us on a personal tour of the main village which was undeniably shredded by the onset of 150 to 180 mph sustained winds with gusts as high as 200 mph, just 5 days prior.

According to Hofschneider, about 64 people are currently sheltered at Tinian Elementary School’s cafeteria however, however so many more either remained in their damaged homes or camped out at one of the island’s outdoor amphitheaters.

We then drove past the gymnasium, where a Red Cross banner hung and where all the donated supplies were dropped off and dispersed. The Municipal PIO tells PNC, that for residents who are bedridden or otherwise unable to visit the gym to collect their share of supplies, members of her team and of the local government refer to an established list of names and personally deliver them to their homes. She adds, that the island has since been visited by CNMI Governor Ralph Torres several times, in addition to Rear Admiral Shoshana Chatfield of Joint Region Marianas.  

The no more than an hour and half long tour concluded in our visit to the historical site of the tallest-standing latte stone in the entire Mariana region and despite the obvious desolation surrounding the site, the latte pilar stood strong.

Our tour however was cut short, after being informed by Christian that we had to make it back to Saipan before 5:30 p.m. which was when all airport operations out of both Saipan and Tinian had to cease all flight activity for safety purposes.   

Other notable sightings:

  • The Antonov An-225 was spotted on Saipan, offloading supplies for the relief effort. The Antonov, a Ukrainian vessel, is known as the largest cargo-aircraft in operation to date, the same one that brought supplies to the region during Typhoon Mangkhut last month.
  • Several U.S. military planes and helicopters were also seen parked, taking off and landing on both islands.
  • FEMA officials were spotted, one of whom told PNC that portions of the agency were already on Saipan and Tinian, having been sent here during Typhoon Mangkhut. The official, who PNC ran into at the hotel we were lodged, also stated that as part of FEMA’s protocol, members are sent to areas in advance, where powerful disasters were eminent. The FEMA staff, donning the official uniform concluded “We come here as soon as we can, because we care, all because we care.”   
PNC’s Joycelynn Atalig and Allan Balbin on Star Marianas flight to Saipan
Star Marianas flight to Saipan
Antonov AN-225, Saipan
Antonov AN-225, Saipan