The super typhoon American media forgot

A family in Saipan rummage through their belongings. Photo by Leni Leon.

When my dad called, at 4am his time, I knew the storm was bad. He was calling from Saipan, part of the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific. The power had been out for nearly 12 hours, the wind was howling, and he couldn’t sleep. He said it felt like the wind was trying to suck him out of the house.

He was calling from a landline—there was no cell service—wanting to know what was going on. As I googled satellite images, I realized just how bad the situation was, even for a place that’s used to getting slammed by violent weather. I soon learned that this was a super typhoon, called Yutu, the most powerful storm on earth this year, and the worst in the US since 1935. At least two people died—one was crushed by a collapsing building and one was killed in the days following the storm by carbon monoxide from a generator. The night I heard from my dad, more than a thousand people became homeless; for many, that’s still the case.

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The winds tore roofs off homes and leveled concrete power poles. Families huddled together in hallways, closets, and bathrooms to escape falling furniture and flying debris. Concrete walls shook and trees flew through windows. When thousands of people emerged to assess the damage, they saw what looked like a war zone.

Despite the widespread destruction, not a single national news crew was on the ground to document it. Adriana Cotero, a newscaster in Saipan, has been shocked by the absence of mainland journalists—especially now, as a humanitarian crisis is unfolding: tens of thousands of people are expected to go months without electricity in the islands’ unforgiving heat. “People need to see this,” Cotero says. “There needs to be international media attention on this. We’re so far away, people don’t know who we are—it’s sad.” Even from a distance, news outlets reported much less about Yutu than they did Hurricanes Michael or Florence, according to data from Media Cloud, an open-source tool. Major news outlets such as CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and HuffPost each published just one non-wire story. The TV News Archive, a nonprofit that tracks captions for broadcasts, returned just 21 results for Yutu, compared with more than 500 for Hurricane Lane and thousands for Hurricane Florence. Juanita Mendiola, a resident of Tinian who hid in her bathroom to survive Yutu, says that the relative lack of coverage is painful. “It feels that we have to do this alone,” she says. “The world is kind of silent.”

 

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Not many people have heard of the Northern Mariana Islands, made up of 14 islands including Saipan and Tinian. The islands, home to the indigenous Chamorro people, are at least a day by plane from the mainland, and flights are expensive. From Tokyo, however, they are only about a three-hour plane ride, which made the islands key battle sites during World War II; the Enola Gay took off from Tinian to bomb Hiroshima. The clear turquoise lagoons are still littered with sunken tanks from the American invasion.

Today, the islands are often the first stop for thousands of immigrants from the Pacific and Asia pursuing the American dream. The last territory to join the US—birthright citizenship was established in 1986—the Northern Mariana Islands got a seat in Congress in 2008, but it’s for a non-voting delegate. People born there are US citizens—and many are part of the wave that delivered Donald Trump to the White House—but they can’t participate in presidential elections.

That makes the relative lack of news from Saipan, given the eclipse of focus on the midterms, particularly frustrating. It’s not surprising, however, since the Northern Mariana Islands have almost always been absent from the national conversation. In 1975, for instance, when officials from the US and the Northern Mariana Islands signed an agreement establishing the commonwealth, the pact didn’t even make front-page news.

An obvious barrier to coverage is the fact that Saipan is far away from most American newsrooms. Yutu destroyed parts of the island’s airport, forcing reporters to cover the storm remotely. Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokesperson for The New York Times, tells CJR that reporters “covered the storm from the Philippines with help from staff in New York.”  

Yet once flights were up and running, many of the news outlets that noticed the storm seemed to quickly forget about it. Only some 55,000 people live in the Northern Mariana Islands; the small population, in conjunction with the low death toll, may have made the crisis seem less newsworthy, especially compared to the Pittsburgh shooting or the midterm elections. “American news organizations tend to treat storms in the Pacific as developing-world disasters—that is to say, newsworthy only when there’s truly overwhelming devastation,” Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University, explains. Plus, “Most news directors can’t point to the Northern Marianas on a map.”

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Mendiola says that the lack of attention stings, given how much the islands continue to sacrifice for the mainland. One uninhabited island has been used by the Navy as a bombing range since 1971; recently, the Navy sought to expand training on more islands. The commonwealth’s national security value has grown with the rise of China and threat of North Korea.

The absence of coverage has consequences for disaster relief. Kevin Bautista, the press secretary for Ralph Torres, the governor of the Northern Mariana Islands, says that it means fewer volunteers to help with rebuilding. He tells CJR, “Knowing the CNMI”—the Northern Mariana Islands—“just as a footnote to World War II is not enough.”

 

Because of its historic strength, Yutu seems to have garnered more national attention than Typhoon Soudelor, which similarly ravaged the islands three years ago and left residents without power for months. Some residents are happy with the level of news media coverage—any national stories at all are significant for a community that’s used to being overlooked entirely. (“What do you mean no coverage?” my mom said when I told her I was writing this story. “We were in The Washington Post!”)

But former residents of the islands living in the states, of whom there are thousands, sought more information. David Atalig, of San Diego, says he turned on the TV when he heard about the storm but he only saw coverage of the midterms and Trump. He reached out to a couple of local TV stations to get the word out about the relief efforts but never heard back.

In the absence of more news stories, Facebook and Instagram have become crucial ways to get up to date about the storm and organize relief efforts. Leni Leon, a Saipan photographer, has been going from village to village posting stories on social media of storm victims: an immigrant with only a trash bag and suitcase left to his name; a couple who spent hours receiving dialysis treatment only to sleep in their car; a pregnant mother who lost her home and is forced to sleep on her in-laws’ floor.

Most people on Saipan and Tinian say that the community is resilient and recovering. By this point, preparing for and rebounding from large typhoons has become a part of local culture in the Northern Mariana Islands, a rite of passage for every generation. But studies suggest that climate change will continue to bring more frequent and intense storms. “What’s happened to the Marianas will happen again—here and around the world,” Tina Sablan, a candidate for the islands’ legislature, says. “Everyone should be paying attention.”

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Anita Hofschneider is a staff writer at Honolulu Civil Beat.