My adopted home country of Palau, in the northern Pacific, was hit by a typhoon last week. Thankfully no one died here, though it did lead to deaths in the Philippines.
The impact on Palau of Typhoon Surigae didn’t make headlines overseas and this might be the first you will have heard of it. Compared to other natural disasters and other cyclones or typhoons in the Pacific, it was a relatively “good” one. But it left me shaken, exhausted and our community rattled.
It wasn’t the first typhoon I’d experienced in Palau or even in my life. Having grown up in the Philippines, which experiences more than its fair share of tropical storms, I was quite used to them.
But in Palau they aren’t common. The last typhoons recorded here before Typhoon Surigae hit last week were the back-to-back onslaughts of Typhoon Bopha and Haiyan in 2012 and 2013 respectively. While those storms wrought more devastation, Typhoon Surigae aroused powerful emotions , leaving most of us exhausted long after the storm had passed.
By Monday last week, we knew that a tropical depression was forming and that, though the severe weather could bring rain to Palau, it was unlikely to hit our country. In fact, we were expecting it to make landfall in the neighbouring Federated States of Micronesia.
Personally, I welcome cold, rainy days as a welcome respite to the hot, humid days we usually get here.
But by Tuesday, the winds were slowly picking up. Palau’s National Weather Service categorised the depression as a storm, but there was no panic and no indication we should start preparing.
Instead, as a journalist, I began to research people I could interview from Micronesia once Surigae hit them. Little did I know that it was headed our way and we were about to be at the centre of it all.
On Wednesday, a weather update said a tropical storm was on its way. It developed so quickly the next day that my husband and I decided that our 9-year old would stay at home. We still weren’t so alarmed as to go and buy groceries so we could hunker down.
But by Thursday afternoon, as the rain continued to beat down, the wind started howling and instinct told us that something more destructive was on its way. By nightfall the storm had grown more intense and its direction had changed by almost 90 degrees, so that Palau was clearly in its path.
Luckily we had enough food to allow us to hole up in our house for at least two days.
Our power started to fluctuate that night. I still had enough battery on my phone to monitor social media, hoping the government would tell us what we should be doing; should we store water? Should we board our glass windows in our bedrooms? Are the low hanging power cables going to fall, and rip across our balcony? Should I go out there to see what’s happening, wondering if I should start looking for stories, but the strong winds freaked me out, and the words of my former journalism professor were ringing in my ears, telling me, no story is worth dying for.
In the following hours, restaurants announced on social media that they would close and some sports and community events scheduled for the weekend were cancelled. But there was still no announcement on school closures.
By the time the president’s office announced that school would be cancelled the power was off. Thank God for my 3G – I was able to alert the principal and other parents from my daughter’s school.
I woke in the middle of the night, hearing my neighbour’s tin roof rattling. We live on the second floor of our concrete apartment building and I looked out of our window, imagining what would happen if the roof of our neighbour’s home got ripped off – would it hit the glass, would it land on our cars? What if the big trees outside our house fell down?
The next day, Friday, water, electricity, and cellular services were down. We don’t have an old-fashioned radio, we always relied on technology to get our news. As someone who is always on top of the news, I have never felt so disconnected from the world. I felt helpless and at the same time kicking myself for being overly dramatic. This is not my first typhoon.
There was still no water on Saturday and we had just enough to last us for a day or two. When cellular services resumed, I saw photos of government workers clearing trees and debris off the roads. But social media was also filled with posts criticising the government for not doing enough to warn the public.
Where were the usual warnings about getting off the roads, securing homes, staying indoors and avoiding unnecessary travel, staying away from the sea shore, stocking up on batteries and drinking water, getting a radio?We had seen nothing.
We know that more natural disasters are coming our way. Climate change means these events will become more common, they will be worse, bigger, and claim more lives and do more damage. Palau, as a small nation, will be vulnerable to its impact, compounded by the existing economic weakness due to the Covid- 19 pandemic. But even these “good” typhoons – those that don’t claim lives or completely flatten cities – are exhausting and devastating for those who live through them.
Palau is known around the world for standing up to China, and refusing to back away from our diplomatic ties with Taiwan. We can say “not here” to China, but it can’t say the same to a force of nature or super typhoon.
What this typhoon shows is how fragile this small island is. Palau can ignore a bully, but it can’t ignore climate change, because whether we like it or not, it’s here.