Once upon a time there were three little pigs and the time came for them to leave home and seek their fortunes. Before they left, their mother told them ” Whatever you do, do it the best that you can because that’s the way to get along in the world. The first little pig built his house out of straw because it was the easiest thing to do. The second little pig built his house out of sticks. This was a little bit stronger than a straw house. The third little pig built his house out of bricks.
Natural disasters are inevitable. How we are prepared for them and deal with the aftermath is a different story.
So what does happen if the three little pigs live on Guam? They should build their house out of concrete cinder blocks with lots and lots of re-bar in it. They better not build their house out of sticks or straw, that’s for sure. Super Typhoon Paka slammed into the island on the afternoon of December 16th, 1997. The 5,000 people left homeless will not forget that any time soon.
About 130,000 people weathered this storm. I was one of them. Didn’t watch much TV back then, so I was blissfully unaware that we were in the cross hairs. I figured it out at the grocery store. There were plenty of clues. The Spam, Pop Tart, charcoal, and bottled water shelves were empty. The lines at the cash register were out the door. Outside guys were pushing and shoving at the ice fridge. The usual chaos.
Guam is subject to typhoons and earthquakes. Those who do not like to suffer unnecessarily stayed prepared at all times. It was just part of life on a tropical island only 14° from the equator. As soon as you finished a jug of water you refilled it and stuck on top the kitchen cabinets, in closets and where ever else you could fit it. Five gallon paint buckets were keepers too. Anything to store water in was a good thing. The potty won’t flush without it. I always kept boxes of candles, matches, lighters, non perishable food, Sterno, batteries, a camp stove, refill butane cans by the case, charcoal, mosquito spray, assorted medicines, first aid kit, and of course booze stashed away for a bumpy day.
It’s scary to be a sitting duck on an island watching a typhoon approaching via radar. There really is nowhere to run. By the time the weather service figures out it’s gonna be bad, it’s too late to evacuate. Even if they could put 130k people on a plane. About 3 hours before the storm hits everyone finishes boarding up and then you hunker down in your house. It’s all dark, stuffy, and creepy being in a boarded up apartment. I watched TV, listened to the radio, fed my fish, drank some wine and fell asleep for a while.
When I woke up the party had started. The winds were howling. It was early evening and I still had electricity. The phone was still working so everyone on the island was in a frenzy of phone calls back and forth. About 8:00 pm the lights went out and then it got real. No sounds of gadgets to mask the roar from outside.
My girlfriend called me and said her sliding glass door blew in so she was in her bedroom closet with a box of wine and cheese and crackers. She made a pallet out of clothes and was reasonable comfortable but pretty shaken up. Then another friend called from her mobile that was still miraculously working. Some of the cell towers were still up at the point. She had an attack of temporary insanity and had gone out on the balcony between squalls to look at the storm. The door locked behind her. So she was now cowering in the corner with a laundry basket over her head. Wind & rain off the ocean blowing at typhoon speed feels like you are being shot with salted needles. I managed to get through to her brother before the phones died. I said a prayer for her that she made it through alive and with a little more common sense. I stayed in my bedroom the whole time in the corner where there were not windows. Outside my room the apartment backed up against the side of a hill so I felt safe.
As the night wore on the radio stations crapped out one by one. Finally there was only one left. A sort of county western gospel mix. If I ever hear “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”again it will be too soon. The radio guy said it looked like the eye was going to pass over the Northern tip of the island. Which is where I was. That’s when I started getting really scared. The last wind gust number I heard was 227 mph and it wasn’t even there yet. The eye passed just close enough to feel the wind die down. I went out on the balcony, making sure that I didn’t get locked out, and looked around. All the palm trees and bushes were completely stripped of leaves. There was so much salt in the air that it seemed foggy. Down the hillside it looked like endless miles of telephone poles. Debris everywhere. I didn’t stay long because I didn’t want to get caught up when the eye passed. The winds come back really fast. Finally enough wine and some Benadryl made me groggy enough to get some sleep.
In the morning it was completely clear, blue sky, gentle breezes. But the island was a disaster. Everywhere you looked there were powers line down. It looked like the whole place was covered in black spaghetti. No running water, no power, nothing but rustles and banging as people started picking up the pieces.
It took several weeks to get running water again. We bathed in swimming pools and cooked a lot of barbecue. Took caravans of pick up trucks down to the beach to fill buckets with sea water so we could flush toilets. The electricity in my area didn’t come back for 6 weeks. Six weeks of broiling muggy heat and mosquitoes. For some reason houses in Guam don’t have screens. We washed our clothes by hand and read by candle light. We played cards, drank warm beer, and pretended we didn’t smell like goats. The officials claim that births on the island always spike about 9 months after a bad typhoon. Gee, I wonder why.
After this typhoon, I decided that I had all the fun I could have on that island and it was time to get the hell out of there. Started making my plans and several months later, I took one last look out the plane window as we flew away. I had some good times there and met a lot of good people, but I don’t miss it all.