Dispatches From Guam
By Michael Loudon
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.
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.
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.
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