Soudelor Volunteers

In the ruinous wake of a typhoon that snapped power poles, crippled the power and water grid, and upended and destroyed homes, the people of Saipan found immediate relief in the uncompensated, unasked for but deliberate, thoughtful, and compassionate aid of volunteers who came—both young and old, island-based and from abroad—to secure the island’s wellbeing after the storm.

As the year comes to a close, Saipan Tribune would like to recognize these tireless souls for their efforts, by honoring all our Typhoon Soudelor volunteers with the accolade of being Saipan Tribune’s Person of Year for 2015.

In the Northern Mariana Islands, the concept of inafa’maolek, or “doing good for others,” is a core value of the CNMI culture and people since its ancestors settled these islands, Gov. Ralph DLG.Torres told Saipan Tribune yesterday. This innate trait is ingrained in everything that its people strive to do for the betterment of the Commonwealth, he said.

“I cannot speak highly enough of the hard work and compassion shown by the volunteer community that sprung to life after Typhoon Soudelor,” Torres said. He thanked the many volunteers who embody the inafa’maolek spirit and hopes that in the New Year the joy of volunteering for the betterment of our community spreads even farther.

Volunteerism is an expression of a person’s involvement in their community, Torres said. Trust and reciprocity, grounded in a shared understanding of common obligations, are values at the heart of good governance and good citizenship.

What the CNMI learned in the past year is that volunteerism is—at its core—about relationships and their potential to enhance the wellbeing of individuals and the community as a whole.  In countries throughout the world, volunteerism is deeply rooted in traditional beliefs and community practices.

This spirit of concern for others was exemplified immediately after Soudelor struck.

On Aug. 7, a makeshift group of volunteers organized direct drinking water relief efforts from the Megabyte store on Beach Road between Star Water and Triple J. They asked for warm bodies, vehicles with gas, and donated cases of drinking water to be delivered directly to village residents in need.

They had gone to villages and seen the living conditions of residents hit hard by Soudelor. Not everyone had access to transportation, fuel, or money to get water to drink. That’s why they thought people with resources and power should be distributing them.

Typhoon Soudelor tore through Saipan on a Sunday but residents saw no direct water relief efforts five days after the storm. “[There are] families who have been living in walls with no roofs who just don’t have drinking water—which is unacceptable. It’s unjust,” volunteer Jenny Hegland told Saipan Tribune outside the Megabyte store that month. “Our goal today is to get drinking water directly to people in villages. We are asking people to bring as much drinking water here to donated.”

“The CNMI is blessed with a large community of volunteers,” said another volunteer, Glen Hunter, “who put aside their personal needs in an effort to ensure that their neighbors were safe and cared for.”

“We had a truck of two containers of water that we had gotten donated,” said Brian Flaherty, “and we were able to take that water to a couple of neighborhoods and fill up five-gallon jugs.”

Waking up to the typhoon’s wake, Flaherty said he was immediately kind of awestruck. “But at the same time you felt immediately a sense a community in our neighborhood,” he said, “because just down the street people were coming down to help you chop down the tree that was blocking the road that was blocking you from getting out. And sharing information, and sharing meals, and sharing fresh water.

“It was a community-building experience for sure,” he said. “It’s wonderful to see that sense of broader community.”

“Our whole humanitarian mission is based on the work of volunteers,” said John Hirsch yesterday, director of the local chapter of the American Red Cross. “They are really the backbone of what we do.”

“We had over 200 volunteers helping us over Soudelor. And they spent over 18,000 hours during the operation.”

Recovery is only as good as the spirit of the community, Hirsch added. “People locked hands and helped each other. …In all the 30 years I’ve been on Saipan, I’ve never seen such a great spirit of one mission to help the people most impacted.”

The shining stars of these volunteers were the young, added Hirsch, who worked tirelessly and energetically and showed up day in and day out under dire circumstances.

“The first three or four weeks—where you, me, and everyone had no power or water—and they were still helping people they didn’t even know. That was an amazing thing.”

“It started with word of mouth,” he added, noting the students did casework, outreach, or warehouse efforts.

Moving forward
Geri Willis, who saw over 150 people on the list who came to meetings for CNMI Commonwealth Advocates for Recovery Efforts, which she led at the call of the Inos administration—an umbrella of volunteer groups working together after the storm—said some volunteers put in 20-hour days in the first month after the typhoon. Hours in the hundreds of thousands when put all together, she added.
“I started with people who were strong in the community…who worked hard. That’s how I developed the program,” Willis said. “I never did any long-term recovery in my life. I am just a little 74-year-old lady. From there, it was just the community spirit. It wasn’t about any one given person.”
The volunteer group discovered and aided with medical needs, health needs—like problems with mold growing in homes. On rebuilding efforts, construction experts went over rebuilding plans and noted materials that were advised against being used in rebuilding. Case management focused on if families needed mattresses, for example.
“When I went to one of the houses—there were three people in this house—one had no leg and the other one was blind and the other one couldn’t get around. The home had nothing that was for disabilities,” Willis said.
“The problem I discovered when I got everybody together is that we had all these agencies on island. But they had never really worked together before.”
She said CARE is a group focused on long-term recovery that understands that the island will see a typhoon in the future. “When, we don’t know. But we have this organization. …We can pull everybody back in,” she said.
“The real person that has got credit for this—and I know he doesn’t like to get credit—is Matt Deleon Guerrero,” the chief of staff of governor Torres, she said. “It’s his vision and foresight that he saw the need for this and we jumped on it within the first week.”

Dennis B. Chan | Reporter
Dennis Chan covers education, environment, utilities, and air and seaport issues in the CNMI. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Guam. Contact him at

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