HONOLULU: President Barack Obama has declared the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands a disaster area and is ordering federal aid to help the U.S. territory in the aftermath of a destructive typhoon.
The White House on Thursday announced the disaster declaration for Typhoon Soudelor, which destroyed homes, toppled trees and snapped utility poles over the weekend on the 48-square-mile island of Saipan.
Damage surveys were ongoing, but the commonwealth remained without electricity and running water, and residents were rationing fuel.
Most major roadways have been cleared of uprooted trees and debris, Saipan resident Glen Hunter said.
"The morning after the typhoon, you could not get anywhere because of the power poles ... and trees that fell on the ground," lifelong Saipan resident Lucy Selepeo said. "The tin houses, practically everything just flew away. The only thing you can see from the houses are the foundations."
Selepeo said concrete homes that withstood the winds, like hers, are flooded.
More than 500 people on Saipan were in shelters, according to the Red Cross.
Officials distributed water at various stations across the island. Still, signs of aid remained scarce going into the fifth day after the storm, Selepeo said.
"I encountered a family of eight who slept on the beach in their car because their home flew away," she said.
About 50,000 people live on the commonwealth's four populated islands, with most residing on Saipan, which took the brunt of the storm.
Nearby Tinian got some damage, while Rota was spared, said Gregorio Kilili Camcacho Sablan, the commonwealth's delegate to U.S. Congress.
As for Pagan, "No idea," he said. "I have no way to contact Pagan."
Ten generators were being shipped from Guam to power water pumps in Saipan, but the harbor was closed Thursday because of a listing boat that was half underwater, Sablan said. Restoring power could take a month or two, he said.
"I haven't seen a storm like this in 20 years," Sablan said. "Unfortunately, the resources we have are hardly enough to get things up."
Wind speeds during the storm were between 100 mph and 120 mph. In an area that's used to typhoons, Sablan said he and others were expecting it to pass with maybe 80 mph winds.
That there were no reports of deaths or serious injury "seems almost impossible," Hunter said.
There initially was a $20-per-vehicle limit on buying gasoline, which meant motorists could get only about four gallons, Hunter said. Some easily burned through that amount while waiting in long lines at the pumps. On Thursday, the limit increased to $50, Sablan said.
Gov. Eloy Inos was on vacation visiting his children on the U.S. mainland.
"He's doing everything he can to come back home. ... He's very anxious," Sablan said.
Despite the desperate conditions, residents were hopeful.
"There is nowhere to go but up from here," Selepeo said. "We're optimistic. We will recover."