A year ago, there was a storm so fierce, so intense, so destructive that I wept and mourned and I was paralyzed because I did not go through it.
I wished I had been battered and broken in the storm that so many others suffered through. And from that guilt of avoidance, came a rushing, battering, incapacitating storm of my own.
One year ago, as I flitted through a sunny summer in Washington state, Super Typhoon Soudelor ripped through my island home of Saipan. I was not there to suffer with my family, with my friends. I wasn't there to wring out towels from leaking window sills, I wasn't there to hold shutters in place as screaming 200+ mile an hour gusts battered homes and trees all night long. I wasn't there to comfort my children while wondering whether my house would withstand the storm. I wasn't there to light candles as the entire island went dark when telephone pole after telephone pole came crashing down.
I wasn't there to step into the gray morning light and see that massive trees had snapped like twigs. They'd fallen onto cars, onto homes, across roadways. I wasn't there to see the flooded neighborhoods. I wasn't there to see the tears roll down the cheeks of family and friends whose homes had been partially or fully destroyed.
I wasn't there to haul away the rubble and debris. I wasn't there to pick up the scattered pieces of my neighbor's house. I wasn't there to wait in line for ten hours to buy rationed gas. I wasn't there to wash my family's laundry in the bathtub using water poured from buckets. I wasn't there to live out the following three months without running water and electricity. I wasn't there to sweat in the blazing tropical heat without air-conditioning or a fan.
I wasn't there. I was here. I carried guilt and shame for being able to go about my life knowing my refrigerator was running and my food was not spoiled. I could flip a switch and the lights would turn on so we wouldn't have to eat dinner by lantern or candlelight. I could use the bathroom without having to pour water down the toilet bowl to flush. My washing machine worked. My drinks were cold. My water was abundant.
I carried guilt and shame for not having the financial resources to fly there and suffer the aftermath with my family and help them rebuild. For not being able to wire the money that was needed to place windows and doors back on my sister's house.
Everyday pleasures felt wrong - everyday life felt wrong. My smiles hid a deep anguish because I knew that even if I had a way to send money, food, water, clothes, or any of the many, many other things that were so desperately needed, yet so very hard to come by, it still wouldn't have been enough because I didn't have the chance to suffer alongside them during the storm and I would never get that time back.
The start of Saipan's school year was delayed because of the multitude of needed repairs - new roofs, new doors, new floors - and because there were many people, oh, so many people, who had lost their homes and had taken up residence at the shelters - the schools.
When the typhoon hit, my mother and her brother had been visiting us in Washington. My mother had spent the last nearly ten months out here. Another family member had bought her plane ticket so she could help tend to some family matters; her time had been split between their house and our house. She had finally wrapped up with them and had been staying with us before heading back home to Saipan. My uncle had come out recently and was also staying with us to visit and take care of some other matters.
The day before it hit, we heard that yet another typhoon was approaching Saipan. We hoped it would be like the one a few days earlier that petered out and didn't cause any damage. But when it comes to storms, you just can't tell. So we watched the weather patterns online. We read what reports were available. We waited to hear from our loved ones - a phone call, an email, a text, even a tweet.
It was Sunday morning in Washington, I was at church between services when I started seeing the first Facebook posts about the devastation. It wasn't until I arrived home sometime before noon when I could call my sister. I heard the shock in her voice, "Deece, it's so bad". She couldn't talk long and I could provide no solace.
For the next several months I walked around in a daze. But the first weeks were especially heartbreaking and haze-filled. I felt like a cartoon character walking around with a rain cloud over my head. I held on so tightly to whatever online news I could garner. Photos of the destruction were abundant. And through the destruction came unprecedented camaraderie in residents and businesses helping each other clear and rebuild, share food and water. There was an outpouring of donations of food, water, and supplies from former Saipan residents on Guam and in the states.
And I, I felt helpless. I cried at Home Depot when we looked at potential generators to ship home. I cried in the grocery store as I placed fresh produce in my cart. I cried at my computer as I ordered batteries and battery operated fans for my mother and uncle to bring home in their luggage. I cried.
My mother and my uncle have been through so many storms in life. So very many. Both literal and figurative storms. Only a few nights before Soudelor hit, my uncle had recounted some absolutely amazing stories about living through various storms, including Super Typhoon Jean in the late '60's during which his first child was born.
My mother is now 70, my uncle is a few years older than she is. They both continue to take on physical work that would tire out many people 20 years their junior. They are the type of people who would brave any storm head-on, putting themselves in danger to help others. And on many occasions they have.
I give thanks to almighty God that they were here with us in Washington and not on Saipan. Because I know, I know, they would have placed themselves in danger in an effort to secure their houses and help others during the storm.
Our time in Washington has not been without difficulty and I often wonder what we are still doing here. It has been especially dark and troubling for me as of late. But as I approached the anniversary of this terrible time for Saipan, my mind was opened to the point of convergence. To the choices and the timeline that brought us to that point where it was necessary for us to be here. There is no doubt in my mind that part of my purpose of being in Washington was to keep them away from Saipan when Soudelor hit.
They returned to Saipan a few weeks later, bearing batteries and fans and a chainsaw and other things to help our family get through the sweltering days and nights of rebuilding.
Pictures tell me that the trees are starting to recover; the mangoes are growing back. Though their hearts have been forever changed, daily life has returned to normal for some; for many others, they are still rebuilding.
This is one of my favorite clips. I hope you'll watch the whole video. I especially like the Middle Eastern folk tale that starts at the 4:50 mark.
If you haven't yet seen what Soudelor did, head to YouTube or Google and search "Soudelor Saipan".
And please check out this documentary, Soudelor Saipan Strong, by Sveta Hunter: