Sunrise in Seattle, Sunset in Saipan

Our Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) recently sent a team of eight WCC AmeriCorps members and two crew supervisors to the Pacific island of Saipan for a 30-day disaster response assignment. The team is assisting the community after Typhoon Soudelor hit the island in early August. Second-year AmeriCorps member Adeline Wisernig shares about the team's travel and mission below. Half of the team will return on Oct. 29. Four AmeriCorps members, along with a crew supervisor, will continue serving in Saipan through Nov. 25.

A 23+ hour journey

Our team left Sea-Tac airport early Saturday morning, Oct. 3, and landed in Saipan late evening. In between, we saw the sights of the Honolulu airport, ate various ramen noodles in Guam and became expert fliers.
WCC AmeriCorps members gather for a group photo in an airport. They are wearing blue shirts and many are giving a thumbs up.

The main thing one notices when flying from Washington far across the Pacific is the absolute vastness of the ocean. Outside the small airplane window the ocean extends into the sky, creating an unbroken plane of blue oriented by the sight of the moon above the plane’s wing.

We landed in Saipan late Sunday evening with high spirits considering an entire day seemed to have disappeared. Greeted by several members of the Texas Conservation Corps crew serving on the island since early September, we had finally made it.

Wait a minute, where is Saipan?

Saipan is part of a chain of islands that form the Northern Mariana Islands, which are considered a commonwealth of the United States. At 12 miles long and 5.6 miles wide, it’s hard to imagine that Saipan is the largest of the islands.

On Aug. 2, Typhoon Soudelor hit Saipan, destroying hundreds of homes and knocking out power on the island for over a month. Because of its exposed location in the Pacific, the island maintains an ongoing Warning Level 1 for typhoons. This means that storms can develop with winds up to 60 miles per hour within 24 hours at any time.

The locals are used to extreme weather and have become accustomed to what they call “banana typhoons” — typhoons that don’t cause much damage outside of knocking a few bananas off the trees. Typhoon Soudelor was anticipated by many to be exactly that. What in reality occurred was the worst typhoon to hit the island in 30 years.

The aftermath of Typhoon Soudelor

We arrive here just over two months after Typhoon Soudelor made landfall and it is clear the island is still very much in need of relief. Having moved past the initial response period of food and water assistance, the current need is a comprehensive plan for rebuilding communities affected by the storm.

A beach sunset features purples and dark pinks in the sky, with palm trees silhouetted on the left and right.

Saipan, however, is not your typical disaster response site. Damages were primarily to homes and structures inhabited by contracted workers. These workers are not citizens of the U.S. but have been granted social security cards and the right to work in Saipan. These homes are largely comprised of tin and plywood walls and roofs which cannot withstand the upward of 90 mph winds Soudelor delivered. As a result, communities were destroyed, trees uprooted, and a way of life upturned.

Rebuilding homes is only a part of the effort needed at this point. Because of the island’s remote location, resources are limited and unique obstacles arise. One major challenge is the sheer scale of the debris removal necessary before rebuilding can start. Where do you take all the tin roofs that are wrapped around downed trees, or the molded contents of a flooded house when you’re on an island?

Recovery: An ongoing effort

Our WCC team is here on a different mission than our typical disaster response assignments, such as mucking and gutting homes. The task over the next month will be to build a support system to match the expansive network of resource organizations (with an impressive volunteer effort) so that on-going relief can continue on a local level. Our efforts are now the tangible results of the "abstract planning" conducted by the crews that came before us from Texas, Minnesota, and Iowa. They organized a database of volunteers and organizations all looking for ways to help the households that were devastated. We are here to continue their efforts and ensure that Saipan will be restored to the paradise that I have so often heard it considered.

WCC’s disaster response program

Four of our WCC crews are designated disaster response crews, though any crew has the potential to deploy. Deployments range from national to local disasters, supporting flood response and prevention, wildfire operations, hurricane assistance and more.

Join WCC!

Do you want to help the environment, meet great people and make a real difference? The 2015-2016 crew year just kicked off, but check back in January to apply for six-month positions with WCC! Ecology's Washington Conservation Corps, an AmeriCorps Program, consists of three subprograms: the original WCC, Veteran Conservation Corps and Puget SoundCorps.

See photos of the types of projects WCC members support during their service in our WCC Projects Flickr set.

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