“Everywhere you looked there were flattened buildings—metal awnings twisted like corkscrews and piles of debris,” said Paulina Zajac, who coordinated a team from Americares and Massachusetts General Hospital in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yutu this past fall.

Historic Storm

A flattened warehouse at Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport.

The most powerful storm to ever strike the Northern Mariana Islands, Yutu was the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane when it made landfall in late October. The storm hovered over the U.S. territory for hours; wind gusts up to 190 mph downed power lines and tore roofs off buildings.

Zajac headed straight from the Saipan airport to the island’s only hospital, which was running out of beds. Americares was there to provide surge support and help relieve medical staff working around the clock as it did after Typhoon Soudelor in 2015. This time Americares came along with a team of volunteers from Massachusetts General Hospital who embedded with the health-focused relief and development organization for two weeks.

Lynn Black, MD, treating a patient in Saipan.

“Many of the hospital workers’ homes were damaged, or partially destroyed, and had no water and no electricity. And yet they were still coming into work every day,” said Dr. Lynn Black, medical director for Mass General’s Global Disaster Response Team. “We were there to relieve them.”

Two nurses and a nurse practitioner were assigned to inpatient wards. A pharmacist provided extra manpower in the hospital pharmacy.

“The trauma people experienced was huge.” Dr. Black said.

Emotionally Draining

In both the hospital and the emergency shelters, where Black was vaccinating survivors against the flu and performing public health assessments, she was struck by the emotional toll the storm had taken.

Carmela Berlin, RPh, unloads supplies in Saipan.

“This typhoon hovered over the island for hours—it didn’t just blow through,” said Black who has responded to global health emergencies for more a decade. “The trauma people experienced was huge.”

On the neighboring island of Tinian Americares mental health experts provided workshops on psychological first aid and coping skills to visibly exhausted school administrators overwhelmed by the responsibility of managing shelters. The team’s first priority was establishing a sense of safety and security.

Americares also delivered a shipment of emergency medical aid including intravenous solutions, medicine, surgical supplies, first aid kits and wheelchairs to resupply the Saipan hospital. The team helped unload the shipment by hand—all 900 boxes.

“Working with Americares we were able to make a significant difference,” Black said.

Learn more about the MGH Center for Global Health Office of Global Disaster Response.

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