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UM Instructor with Roots in Saipan Coordinates Relief Efforts for Typhoon Yutu Victims

By Anna Grace Usery

Sustained winds of more than 180 mph pummeled the islands of Saipan and Tinian, both U.S. territories, as super typhoon Yutu swiveled its way across the land in an attempted act of total devastation this week. The islands are the largest in the Northern Mariana Islands, two dots in the middle of the vastness that is the Pacific Ocean.

A downed pole found its way through the roof of a home in Saipan as a result of super typhoon Yutu. Photo by Brad Ruszala.

Located a short 130 miles northeast of fellow U.S. territory Guam, Saipan is home to more than 50,000 people. 

Instructional Assistant Professor of IMC Ji Hoon Heo spent most of his young adult life in Saipan. From the ages of four to 18, he formed lifelong friendships with fellow Chamorros, natives of the Mariana Islands, at school and tennis practice. He’s spent the past two days getting in contact with the friends he loves nearly 7,500 miles from where he sits in Oxford, Mississippi. Most friends said the devastation is significant and recovery time is unknown and looming like the black clouds currently surrounding the island. 

“I was able to get in contact with my childhood tennis coach who was in Hong Kong at the time,” Heo said. “He said the island had been devastated. He doesn’t know when he can return home.”

Heo spoke of home very fondly, even when he explained that a friend sent him a video of the house he grew up in—which was connected to a church—that was pierced by uprooted palm trees and lay among the rubble of the rest of the island. 

Electricity on the island has been obliterated, NBC News reports. A New York Times video surfaced to show phone lines peppering the downtown streets and buildings completely gutted by waves that reached 40 feet as the nucleus of the typhoon’s eyewall crossed the shaken island.

The Saipan Tribune reported this morning, Oct. 26, that the Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport will reopen Sunday for commercial airlines. However, the flights are only for passengers leaving the country.

A soccer net is mangled between the entryway of a metal fence at a sports stadium. Photo by Brad Ruszala.

Heo said he went to middle school with the daughter of U.S. Congressman Gregorio Sablan, a representative of the people of the Northern Mariana Islands. 

“It’s like a small war just passed through,” Sablan told the Huffington Post. 

War did pass through Saipan nearly 75 years ago as Japanese control reared its ugly head on the Saipan mainland during WWII. Life magazine reported in its Aug. 28, 1944 issue that “Saipan was to Japan almost what Pearl Harbor is to the U.S.”

Japanese Forces still held control of the Mariana Islands as the Allied Forces made their way west from Pearl Harbor claiming control of Solomon, Gilbert and Marshall Islands. From Saipan, the Allied Forces’ heavier bombs would be well within reach of Japan’s mainland, according to the 1944 issue of Life. After a bloody bonzai attack that lasted from the middle of June to early July of 1944, U.S. forces raised the American flag against the Japanese July 9 to claim control over Saipan, according to history.com.

Two cars are damaged after being in the wake of super typhoon Yutu’s wrath. Photo by Brad Ruszala.

Though Heo said no immediate family is still living in Saipan, he’s continuing to reach out to those who are reaching back, despite the distance in between. 

“The first thing you ask yourself is, ‘What can you do?'” he said in reference to facilitating relief efforts. “Donate, of course, but what more can you do? There are some who need money … some need emotional support,” he said. 

Heo said he and his best friend have worked relentlessly to form direct connections with local organizations in the area and are coordinating their efforts through a website called yuturelief.com. 

“When I tell people about Typhoon Yutu they have no idea it’s the biggest storm of 2018,” Heo said. “So, we’re trying to raise awareness. There is a long recovery effort.”

Super typhoon Yutu has obliterated parts of the perimeter of Saipan. Photo courtesy of Brad Ruszala.

Since noon yesterday (Oct. 25), the Saipan Tribune reports that the Commonwealth Health Center emergency room treated 133 storm victims, with one casualty in Saipan. 

President Donald Trump approved and issued an emergency declaration Oct. 23 to the Commonwealth of the Northern Marina Islands, officials at the White House report. The action authorizes relief organizations to “save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, and to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in the municipalities of Rota, Saipan, Tinian, and the Northern Islands.”

To donate to super typhoon Yutu relief efforts, please follow this link. 

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