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Super Typhoon Yutu devastates U.S. territory: ‘It’s like a small war just passed through’

HONOLULU — Residents of the Northern Mariana Islands braced Friday for months without electricity or running water after the strongest storm to hit any part of the United States this year devastated the U.S. territory, killing one person, officials said.

Even after Super Typhoon Yutu had moved away from the Pacific islands, emergency management officials warned residents to stay indoors because downed power lines blocked roadways and winds were still strong enough to make driving dangerous.

A 44-year-old woman taking shelter in an abandoned building died when it collapsed in the storm, a post on the governor’s office Facebook page said. Officials couldn’t immediately be reached for additional details.

The territory will need significant help to recover from the storm that injured several people, said Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, the territory’s delegate to Congress. He said Thursday that there were reports of injuries and that people were waiting to be treated at a hospital on the territory’s largest and most populated island, Saipan.

He could not provide further details or official estimates of casualties.

“There’s a lot of damage and destruction,” Sablan said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from Saipan. “It’s like a small war just passed through.”

The islands’ emergency management agency was “deploying resources to clear our roadways so first responders can begin assisting residents who have lost their homes and for those who need transport to seek medical attention or transportation to the nearest shelter,” spokeswoman Nadine Deleon Guerrero said in a statement.

Sablan said has not been able to reach officials on the islands of Tinian and Rota because phones and power are out. “It’s going to take weeks probably to get electricity back to everybody,” he said.

The two islands will be unrecognizable, said Brandon Aydlett, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. The agency received reports that catastrophic winds ripped roofs from homes and blew out windows.

“Any debris becomes shrapnel and deadly,” he said.

The electricity on Saipan about 3,800 miles (6,115 kilometers) west of Hawaii went out at 4 p.m. Wednesday, resident Glen Hunter said.

Maximum sustained winds of 180 mph (290 kph) were recorded around the eye of the storm, which passed over Tinian and Saipan early Thursday local time, the weather service said.

“At its peak, it felt like many trains running constant,” Hunter wrote in a Facebook message. “At its peak, the wind was constant and the sound horrifying.”

It was still dark when Hunter peeked outside and saw his neighbor’s house, made of wood and tin, completely gone. A palm tree was uprooted.

Hunter, 45, has lived on Saipan since childhood and is accustomed to strong storms. “We are in typhoon alley,” he wrote, adding that the storm is the worst he has experienced.

He said he doesn’t expect getting back power for months, recalling how it took four months to restore electricity after Typhoon Soudelor in 2015.

The roof flew off the second floor of Del Benson’s Saipan home.

“We didn’t sleep much,” he wrote in a Facebook message. “I went upstairs and the skylight blew out. Then the roof started to go. We got the kids downstairs.”

Sablan said colleagues in Congress have reached out to offer help and he expects a presidential disaster declaration to free up resources for storm relief.

Recovery efforts on Saipan and Tinian will be slow, said Aydlett of the weather service.

“This is the worst-case scenario. This is why the building codes in the Marianas are so tough,” he said. “This is going to be the storm which sets the scale for which future storms are compared to.”

Dean Sensui, vice chairman for Hawaii on the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, was in Saipan for a council meeting. He hunkered down in his hotel room, where guests were told to remain indoors because winds were still strong Thursday morning.

“From around midnight the wind could be heard whipping by,” he said in a Facebook message. “Down at the restaurant it sounded like a Hollywood soundtrack with the intense rain and howling wind.”

Because he was in a solid hotel, it wasn’t as scary as living through Hurricane Iniki in 1992, which left the Hawaiian island of Kauai badly damaged, he said.

“The fact that we still have internet access proves how solid their infrastructure is,” he said. “Hawaii and others should study the Marianas to understand how to design and build communication grids that can withstand a storm.”

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