September 12, 2023

Remembering Typhoon Mawar

Hurricane season is upon us. The on-going news coverage of Hurricane Lee as well as the recent coverage of Hurricane Idalia and its impact on Florida and Georgia show us just how terrible such natural disasters can be. Just about a month or so ago we saw tropical storm Hillary flooding the media because west coast tropical storms are so rare. While the recent barrage of news coverage of tropical storm Hillary and its potential impact on sunny Southern California did scare many, it also revealed nature’s unpredictability and the need for disaster preparedness. Thankfully, Hillary eventually fizzled out. The aftermath among our ENGEO staff, particularly in our California offices, was essentially limited to some small talk like “Did you guys actually feel anything? How was the rain?”, as if we were discussing one of those pesky M4.0 earthquake temblors. However, Hillary also reminded us of Mawar (Malay for rose), the Category 5 Super Typhoon that ravaged the island of Guam in late May this year, and how our Guam staff weathered the storm, or rather the typhoon, with determination, innovation, and just plain grit.  

Mawar was one of those infrequent powerful typhoons that lambasted Guam. As it approached Guam, it also underwent an eyewall replacement cycle that intensified the typhoon up to 185 mph winds. While most of the mainstream media did not cover Mawar, and while some of us in the mainland do not know that Guam is very much a US territory (please tell that to those network and broadband providers, who consider Guam a foreign country), most of our ENGEO mainland staff were nervously watching live satellite images of Mawar and its path. Our Guam staff had no such luck as the power had long since gone out, along with any cell coverage. 

In the days before the typhoon, the US National Weather Service Guam (USNWSG) was a huge resource to all of Guam, including to our ENGEO family on the island. They kept the entire island up to date on the progression of the storm, from a blip on the map to a tropical storm, to a typhoon, and then to a super typhoon. USNWSG provided useful checklists on what to do before, during, and after the typhoon. They provided live video updates on social media. They would update on how fast the winds were developing, which parts of the island would be hit the hardest, when to expect landfall, and so on. 

The US military and other agencies typically issue four levels of Condition of Readiness (COR) alerts during storms, hurricanes, and typhoons.  COR 4 is for normal conditions, and COR 1 is when a typhoon with damaging winds is imminent and expected to make landfall in 12 hours. On Saturday, May 20th, 2023, the Governor of Guam announced COR 3. By 1:00 pm on Tuesday, May 23rd, COR 1 was declared because Typhoon Mawar had strengthened to a Category 4 typhoon! Rainfall amounts were expected to be 8 to 15 inches. That evening, at 7:30 pm it was announced Typhoon Mawar had developed into a Super Typhoon with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph and was now a Category 5. Heavy winds and blinding torrential rain started about 5 pm and the entire island lost power just before 8 pm. The eye of the storm had shifted. Originally forecast to just graze the southeastern tip of Guam, it was now traversing right through all of Guam. Mawar would eventually deluge Guam with over 24 inches of rainfall in just a matter of hours.  

All our Guam staff have their own personal stories to relate, and they will certainly one day be told to their grandkids — stories of howling winds, deafening noise, intense rainfall, and the fear of tree limbs being hurled through the window. Of parked cars skidding across the parking lot and slamming into each other. Of ankle-deep water in the kitchen. Of screaming kids. The innovative use of diapers as window and door sealants to limit water intrusion. Even Stacy, our office administrator who, as a military spouse, has lived in isolated Pacific islands with very few resources and has experienced life with dirt floors, tin roofs, and tropical storms, felt totally out of her element. Stacy’s experience was powerful: “We felt so utterly helpless and useless. The water was pouring in through our back door. Not only was it coming in through the top, bottom, and side seals, but it also forced its way through the seams in the metal slats that made up the door. Mind you, we have typhoon rated exterior doors, but this was like something from the Twilight Zone. I mean, the sound was like nothing I had heard before.” 

In so many ways, the aftermath was worse than the typhoon itself. No electricity and no water for several weeks. That meant no laundry, no showers, no cooking, no refrigeration. Manual filling of toilet tanks. Standing in line for hours on end for a can of gasoline to run the generator. Walking up and down several flights of stairs, carrying heavy cases of precious drinking water. Not much sleep with the nighttime temperature in the usual 80-plus degrees and with that soul wrenching 100% humidity with no air conditioner. Exhausted kids. Confused and terrified pets. Eating only canned food for days on end. The uncertainty of it all. All this along with the typical, and frequent, Guamanian cloudbursts.  

Our tenacious Guam office staff kept a very positive attitude sprinkled with humor, and went about helping one another, checking on clients as well as each other, delivering essentials when possible, and trying to communicate with our other offices as and when they could. Of course, after spending days without laundry, without a shower, constantly drenched in sweat, no air conditioner, and after exhausting all emotions, what else could one do but laugh? 

Maybe time does heal most wounds. The island is back to its sunny and warm self, and we can now hear the usual and cheerful “Hafa adai!” as before. Our laboratory technician Kristie, who was visiting from sunny Southern California, sums up nicely the indomitable spirit that was on display when our staff showed up at the office for cleanup and DIY repairs: “A proud moment was when everyone who was able to show up showed up.  Teamwork really does make the dream work and everything possible.  We showed up for each other and supported one another.” Today, Mawar’s remnants are limited to a few fallen trees that are yet to be cleared, and the occasional rolling blackout. While we reflect on Mawar, we also mourn the loss of the two Guamanians who were lost at sea during the typhoon. 

A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. Or Mawar by any other name would be just as destructive. In case you are wondering, hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones all mean the same; they are just different words used in different regions of the world. Hafa adai!, from ENGEO’s Guam office staff. 

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