Dispatches From Guam

By Michael Loudon

[Michael has been spending his sabbatical year in Guam and—more recently, due largely to the events described below—Switzerland. No pictures were available at press time.—JDK]

Dec. 8, 2002

We're about 12-14 hrs from the center of typhoon Pongsona, now 180 miles SE of Guam, moving W-NW at 13 mph, intensifying, with sustained winds in the center of 115 mph with stronger gusts. The weather at the bottom of the TV screen—where this information comes from—calls for mostly cloudy and windy tomorrow with isolated showers. Really.

We've got the typhoon shutters up except for the glass sliding door shutters (that look out the front view over the bay), which go up last, so Maureen doesn't get anxious claustrophobia from the darkness. I caulked the windows and the solid outside door to the balcony from the bedroom with something called Seal and Peel, a heavy airplane glue from the smell of it. At last we had to use the fan and crack the living room glass balcony doors to keep from passing out with huffing the stuff. Kate's back from work, turning down a free hotel room—when the power goes out and it gets hot, she'll wish she were in the Santa Fe Hotel, with its independent generator and air conditioning, but they had almost no business by nine. She's off tomorrow. Even at the respectable 45-50 mph now blowing pretty steady, the power of this thing is something to see—the surf's whitecaps out the window even in the dark are as white as if someone had slung globs from a paintbrush across the outer reef. Save for a few gusts, the wind just keeps rising in a steady, nearly imperceptible intensity. Then you realize the treetops are bent a few more degrees and the sound is louder than it was a half hour before. I can even stand outside and enjoy the blowing wind, a relief from the humidity, without being blown off the balcony. Now.

Sometime in the next several hours, we'll inevitably lose power and water, but we're stocked with drinking water, flashlights, candles, food in the refrigerator (the building has its own generator and the circuits keep everyone's refrigerator going once they fire it up). We're in much better shape than a lot of people who don't own their own generators. We've got the laundry done, the two rechargeable fan/light/radio/clock contraptions all charged up fully—they'll last eight hours each, supposedly. We may find out. And so far the internet server is still functioning. That is until we lose the power that serves it. We will have phone service—those lines are buried under ground—now that I brought along an "old fashioned" phone that's not a portable and doesn't have to have juice to work. Much to Maureen and Kate's horror, I'm rather enjoying it all—well, except for getting drinking water earlier this morning when half the island was at the same place doing the same thing. I've got lots of batteries, so I can't see what will bother me but the noise (I'll use up batteries and play loud music) and the heat—we'll crank down the Aircon, as they say here, first thing in the morning and freeze ourselves while waiting to lose power, but the next few hours will be worth it. That probably sounds odd in your cold weather.

Anyway, I'm too excited to be too sleepy, so I thought I'd let you know we're safe and prepared. Better get off while I can still send this. No need to worry. We expect it to be mostly cloudy and windy today with isolated showers.

Dec. 14, 2002

We're all alive and safe but tattered from the winds of Pongsona (Bong-sa-wa). The supertyphoon hit about 10 am Sunday morning Guam time and by 2 pm the winds were raging at 185 mph. We lost typhoon shutters, got four inches of water on the floors—in a fourth-floor apartment—and had dents in the car and a busted taillight. We were lucky. The cement cracked inside above the door from our bedroom to the balcony, and the balcony itself cracked the concrete at the base. For twelve hours the winds kept up a steady howl, unbelievably loud. The rain came in sideways so hard that it forced itself through concrete walls under the window sills and ballooned out grapefruit-sized bubbles between the wall and the paint until they burst, sending water gushing out into the floors. But none of our windows broke and came flying in at us, so we were lucky.

(If the FEMA guys read this: ALL the windows broke, and we had two feet of water. Everything we own blew away—my new laptop, the Persian rugs, $20,000 worth of rare books, the big-screen TV used for educational viewing, and my new Mercedes parked in the living room—all gone, gone, gone.)

Much of the island is devastated. Our northwestern side rode the wall, so we got the strongest winds and no relief from the eye. The pounding winds shook the building like a twelve-hour earthquake and tornado combined. Power lines were down everywhere. Whole buildings were imploded—the house across the street is a pile of debris. The apartment building next door lost the roof. Cars were wrapped around power poles that remained standing. SUV's were flipped upside down on other cars. Debris, tin (from roofs), is scattered everywhere. Trees lost bark and tops. The place looks bombed out, but bombing wouldn't have lasted as long and hit so many places. There's no power, no water, phone service comes and goes. (What power there is comes from diesel-powered generators like the one in our building that keeps the refrigerators running. I've tapped into it, until they discover my cord, in order to use the computer while the server is up and running, also from a generator.)

Sometime during the typhoon, jet fuel tanks at the island's fuel farm ruptured and caught fire, blocking access to the island's gasoline supply. For five nights we've watched the burning in the night to the south of us. Huge plumes of black ugly smoke poured out of the island, and, when it rained, black rain fell on children playing outside in the south. Just this afternoon the fire is out. With two or three days of cooling, we'll once more have access to gasoline, rationed though it will probably be. We're down to a quarter of a tank, but within walking distance to groceries—what few remain on the shelves. We do have lots of drinking water—20 gallons left—and access to a low pressure hose for showers, dishes and flushing from downstairs. That's luxury right now compared to most of the island.

A haphazard system of buses is running to get people to and from what jobs remain. The 10,000 tourists have been evacuated, and the airport is now functioning again, so food is on the way. Three ships wait outside the only harbor to unload gasoline and supplies, once the fuel tank farm is cool enough for safe passage. Diesel fuel is once again being distributed, so the sporadic power can probably continue if you have a generator. The post office is functioning three hours a day as of today. The hospital lost the top two floors, and a MASH unit from Toledo is to arrive tonight sometime.

Sirens punctuate both day and night. Car alarms go off about every twenty minutes somewhere within hearing. Confusion and post-typhoon shock mark the faces of just about everyone you see. Classes at all schools—those that remain or are not in use as shelters for the 5,000 homeless—are over for some time. The University was hit badly, so the semester's over—dorm rooms are cluttered with broken windows and flooded belongings.

Life continues during the daylight hours. At night the rats and snakes sift through the debris and garbage—no gasoline to get it to the temporary dump sites—and people are looting stores for generators, though not in as great a numbers as you might guess. Broken glass litters every pavement. Here and there a coconut shows up in an odd place, below the broken ATM at the bank.

So this is America's paradise, though it's so far away that only Hawaii seems aware of the disaster here. And they're worried about brown tree snakes escaping from the island on so many emergency flights. The FEMA people are here already, and, when there's gasoline, they'll start their assessment. All attention has been on the fires—that's the gasoline for dialysis patients, water "buffaloes" and a hundred other "services" that make up daily life. But it's warm, and, though the garbage rots fast, cold showers aren't so bad in a bathing suit, and the stench starts to seem normal though nauseating. We're waiting for the typhoid and cholera to kick in. And the sunset, absent the black smoke, this evening was gorgeous as are the stars and the Gemini meteors.

Now comes word that a tropical storm is forming east of Chuuk. If it whips up into a typhoon, it's not likely to do us much harm. This island is already smashed into pieces. Enjoy the cold weather. It could be worse.

Dec. 26, 2002

Slowly, slowly the water and power come back on. About half the island has water but pressure varies, and sometimes raw sewage backs up in strange places, like our dishwasher to close out the Christmas dinner of steaks cooked on charcoal and rice and red cabbage with balsamic vinegar for the salad. (I got a Swiss army knife, an original watercolor (pre-typhoon) island scene and Paul Coelho's Manual for the Warrior of Light for Christmas.) Then, cleaning up, the distinct smell of shit water seeping out over the kitchen floor. Mopping and Clorox. GovGuam reacted: this morning's cold shower was half bleach by the smell of it. Some valve somewhere was functioning once more. But, hey, there's water coming out of my own shower now. Gasoline is widely available without lines at $1.87 a gallon.

The Pacific Daily News reports half the island now has power, but I'd guess it's 30% at best. And it's certainly not on in my part of Tamuning. The National Guard still directs traffic in the daylight hours, and at night I take my chances on the dark streets, if I must go out for cigarettes. (I'm not smoking in my office.) Life, however, is reasonable with my continued bootlegging—boonie-rigging in Guamanian—of the generator juice. I'm able to run a reading light, the computer, a rice cooker, a hot plate, TV for videos (football playoffs will not be seen in Guam this year) and a boom box--I'm listening to steel band calypsoes from Toronto. And I can buy stuff on the net: Amazon is sending me the video of the Enola Gay mission—it's confirmed. Guam, after all, is part of America. Where America's day begins.

Cleaning up has begun in earnest. Piles of wood, "green" now brown debris, tin, smashed cement and soggy household goods (everything from refrigerators to books, dolls to batteries) grow on every street in every neighborhood. Temporary sites have opened for those with trucks to haul away the "personal" debris that came from everywhere else around those lucky enough to still have houses with debris that are not themselves debris. Very few sort it out into the instructed recyclable piles of mandated "green, tin and wood." A process akin to the "voluntary" four-way stops at major intersections in the absence of the Guard as dusk sets in.

The island's people are resilient, though, and the radio talk shows tout the spirit of the people on a daily basis. Yet some disparities remain: a blind man calls in to ask for help in getting somewhere to procure drinking water. The Navy announces today it has too much water pressure on the base at Comnavmarianas, encouraging those living on base to wash their cars, spray down their houses and hose off their driveways this weekend. Suburbia right here on Guam. Meanwhile someone else calls in and asks where he can find all these "water buffaloes" (the tank trucks) so his kids can take a bath. The people do go on, used to recovering from all manner of earthquakes and typhoons, though nothing like this for thirty-some years. The last supertyphoon (winds over 150 mph) was Paka in '97, but no one here makes that comparison. They talk of Karen, Pamela, Omar, and, now, Pongsona, a flower for the boys and girls born out of memorable winds.

How could the Bills lose to Green Bay? Tell me, Bill, how could that happen?
The best of the season to all,


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