Thursday, October 16, 2014

Looking over my shoulder: Typhoon Nina, November 21, 1987, in Chuuk

My family lived through this typhoon on the Island of Moen (now known as Weno), four before the first birthday of my first son, Forrest.  This was a memorable occasion for me, on several counts.  I had just recently started to work at Chuuk High School: my classroom was destroyed, as were many at the school.  The house we were living in was destroyed: the tin roof landed, intact, some 100 feet away from the former house site; fortunately it missed the house we were sheltering in.  It was my first payday, a substantial paycheck covering five pay periods remained uncashed, and provided a source of cash start our recovery.  Susumu's Store had to sell of all frozen food, as there was not power to run the freezers, so for Forrest's mandatory birthday party, we were able to buy a large quantity of whole frozen chickens for US$7.00 per each 20 or 30 pound case.

That night, the Chuuk Weather Station did not receive any forewarning of the arrival of the Typhoon, due to a convergence of factors.  Typhoon Nina was the first storm in Micronesia for which typhoon chaser planes did not fly---a stormy beginning for the now incredibly effective satellite-based storm monitoring of the Joint Typhoon Warning System (  If I recall correctly, radio communications were also lacking that night between the Chuuk Weather Office and the JTWC on Guam.   When the typhoon struck, it was without warning.

The winds were not strong, looking at the numbers, but the destruction was impressive.  Many homes in Chuuk were built out of plywood and "tin roofing"---corrugated iron.  Looking back, it seems incredible that more people are not injured by flying roofing material.  Looting was rampant.  We later found pieces of a unique type of roofing from our house on a neighbor's re-built house.  Much of my science gear was lost.  My camera was among the first items lost.  Some of my science gear was in the classroom, completely destroyed.  During my last year at UCSB, realizing I would be teaching in Chuuk, and that opportunities for research and study existed, I had xeroxed several boxes of material for reading and reference.  These were scattered far and wide, in a second.  Books were reduced to a soggy mush.

FEMA came to Chuuk immediately.  C130s brought in relief materials.  Soon a new phrase was heard all over the islands: "ke pach, ke tento."   If you have connections, you get a tent.  It was true: the governor's family, it was well known, were recipents of a large share of tents and other relief supplies.  Finally, I think my family got some tents.   When FEMA inspectors came through to assess the damage, I was asked, are you working?  I said I had a job, even though I had only just started.  For this reason, and because I didn't have the right DNA, I suppose, I was told that I could take out a loan from the SBA to cover my losses.  I guess it doesn't make a FEMA inspector feel as good to help one of their own, as to reach out to the third world needful people.  I spent weeks making a comprehensive list of everything had lost which came to 10--12,000 dollars.  It took many months, but eventually I received a loan for 8,000.00 to cover the house and my materials.  FEMA did provide assistance for some of the losses of my family. Inequity was the order of the day.

Today, 27 years on,  a Google search on Typhoon Nina is telling.  Even though the wind speeds were moderate in Chuuk, it turns out to have been one of the most destructive Supertyphoons in Philippines history.  Available now are storm tracks.

Here is the track published on

Information for this typhoon in the PI:
Super Typhoon “SISANG” (Nina)
November 23-27, 1987
240 kph
979 deaths
PhP 1.119B damage
Here is the map of storm tracks for the 1997 typhoon season, from Wikipedia (

From the Wikipedia article on Typhoon Nina (are you kidding me?  Awesome!):

Federated States of Micronesia

After passing near Truk, which has a population of 42,000, Typhoon Nina brought heavy damage to the area. In the capital of Meon, 85% of homes and 50% of government buildings were damaged.[6] There, communication lines were downed.[7] Hundreds of people were evacuated while the typhoon also inflicted severe crop damage.[8] Throughout the atoll, four lives were lost,[7] including a woman and a 14-year-old boy were killed by a falling breadfruit tree and an 11-year-old girl died after her leg was struck by a piece of flying metal.[8] One person was reported missing. Over 1,000 people were rendered homeless[9] while roughly 1,000 homes were damaged.[10] Damaged from the storm ranged from $30-40 million (1987 USD) and 39 were wounded.[11]

We built an experimental structure, made of Burlap Reinforced Plaster, 8x12 feet, which became our home.   That is another story, but a really interesting one.

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