When Super Typhoon Yutu battered Saipan and Tinian on Oct. 24-25, nearly every building in Yutu’s path sustained damage, including the Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport. Its air traffic control tower was rendered inoperable after the windows were blown in and the electronic equipment were exposed to the wind and rain. As the tower underwent temporary repairs, the U.S. Air Force facilitated ground to air communications for the new air bridge between Guam and Saipan.
A temporary communications system has been installed at the tower and air traffic control has been returned to civilian authorities at the airport but a dozen service members remain to coordinate the flow of materials, equipment, and personnel to the CNMI.
Operating on the ground underneath the remains of the passenger loading bridge for Gate 1 is a team of Guam-based airmen who have worked 16-hour shifts since they hit the ground the day after Yutu struck.
To date, the 36th Contingency Response Group, 36th Logistics Readiness Squadron, and 36th Force Support Squadron have been responsible for communication on the apron, aircraft refueling, vehicles maintenance, accountability for Air Force personnel who deplane, offloading aircraft, staging of offloaded supplies and their subsequent loading onto trucks for distribution.
Master Sgt. Jamie Almquist of the 36th CRG explained his team had less than a day to prepare for the relief efforts. “We got the call to prepare for this mission Thursday, Oct. 25, at 11am and went wheels up Friday, Oct. 26, at 6am,” he said.
Almquist’s team has pulled 14- to 16-hour shifts since they arrived on Saipan. While flight operations are limited to daylight hours, the service members remain after dark to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency load the trucks that take the supplies to the staging areas.
As of Nov. 4, Almquist and his team have processed 619 personnel and 2.2 million lbs of relief materials on 101 flights. These flights consist of a variety of aircraft to include helicopters, C-17 Globemaster IIIs, C-130 TYPE (usually Combat King or Hercules), and cargo versions of the Boeing 747, Antonov and Ilyushin. What has quickly become the busiest airport in Micronesia requires seamless coordination between local and military personnel, especially now that limited commercial operations have resumed on Saipan.
“We’re currently working with the Commonwealth Ports Authority Air Operations to de-conflict the military airlift operations from the commercial side,” said Almquist. “We maximize ramp space for the supplies and ensure there’s ample access to commercial carriers and operations.”
All units on the island are here as part of Task Force-West, which was stood up by U.S. Indo- Pacific Command and is responding to the devastation caused by Super Typhoon Yutu, which struck the CNMI on Oct. 24.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Super Typhoon Yutu was the second- strongest system to hit U.S. soil in recorded history.
FEMA-supported recovery efforts began Oct. 25 immediately following the storm. (PR)