Hope Is a Ghost Island: Guam After Typhoon Mawar

Hope Is a Ghost Island: Guam After Typhoon Mawar

Hope Is a Ghost Island

Three weeks ago, a Category 4 cyclone tore through Guam, but her people are not waiting to be saved.


Hagåtña, Guam—It’s been 21 days since super typhoon Mawar tore through the island of Guam. A Category 4 cyclone, Mawar cut off all communications as well as power and water to the vast majority of the nearly 171,000 people living here. In the days that followed, the island looked like a war zone. Downed power lines littered main roads, while felled trees blocked back ones. Jungles thick with green became brown wastelands.

Hundreds of people remain in public shelters. Many more hundreds remain without electricity or running water. For its part, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has received over 17,000 individual assistance applications, and that number is expected to spike, as thousands more descend upon the four disaster recovery centers that have recently opened their doors.

Many families lost everything they owned. Many of them are reportedly sleeping in their cars, which they park outside restaurants or relatives’ houses or simply in the spot where their houses once stood. I heard about a single mom with six kids asking neighbors to keep watch at night, worried that someone would rob them or worse. I also heard about one family who slept in their car not after the storm but during it. A woman who works in a café I frequent told me that her family spent the typhoon in their Toyota Corolla in the parking lot of a local motel. Incredulously, due to a double booking, she was put out by the motel manager during the eye of the storm. With nowhere to go and the storm already raging, she spent all night cradling her children and praying for daylight.

It’s not that the catalog of horrors that comes with cyclones is unfamiliar to us. As I’ve written elsewhere, we in Guam have seen more than our fair share of super typhoons. It’s just that it’s been a while. Pongsona in 2002 was the last one.

Everyone here remembers Pongsona, though I suspect we remember it differently, or at least for different reasons. I remember it not in terms of the damage it did but in terms of every awful funerary detail surrounding my grandmother’s death. She died just before the storm hit. I remember the rosaries by candlelight, the armies of mosquitoes, the mortuary workers worrying their generator would run out of gas, thereby accelerating the decomposition of the corpses in their charge.

Though catastrophic, some of our elders are fond of saying the storm would have been worse but for the fact that it landed on the eighth of December, which is the day the island sets aside for its most beloved patron saint, Santa Marian Kamalen (aka Mother Mary). They say she interceded on our behalf. I take some comfort in their belief though I do not exactly share it, as I can’t help but remember that December 8 is also the day Japan bombed our island—a life-altering event that dragged us unwittingly into the Second World War, a war from which we have never truly recovered. I tend to think the great Mother’s role, if any, is maybe more mitigation than intercession.

The problem of course is being a people in need of intercession in the first place. But then that’s the definition of colonization. So much of the violence visited upon us has been at the hands of others—be it past or present, contamination or climate change. As for the latter, this proves truer every day, even more so with El Niño now upon us. Indeed, cyclones are one of several extreme weather events expected to increase in the coming year.

But colonization is just one facet of life on Guam. We are also a people rich in resources we can lean on in hard times, namely, culture and community. We have time-tested networks of large extended families, or clans, we can call upon. We have an abiding respect for our elders and a rather elaborate system of cultural values—the heart of which is reciprocity. We have more words for reciprocity than any other word in our language. Guinahan Famaguo‘on. Chenchule’. Ika.

I’ve seen this system in action every day since the storm.

In the northern villages, which were hit hardest, I’ve seen several clans come together—to remove fallen trees from each other’s ranches, to clean each other’s houses, to cook meals for each other’s children. A friend from the northernmost village of Yigo recently recounted how seven of her nephews teamed up to clean all the yards in the family compound, starting with the oldest relatives, followed by those with disabilities. Several grassroots groups have likewise risen to the occasion, responding to distress calls of the worst-off neighborhoods. Groups like Nihi, Mañe’lu, and the Micronesia Climate Change Alliance are on the move like little armies of salvation, providing a range of essential services to the poorest members of our community. They know what we all must—that extreme weather events never impact everyone equally. Like other adverse effects of climate change, the vulnerable invariably suffer first and worst.

These clans and community groups have been a source of strength these past three weeks. They have also reminded me that there is nothing quite as powerful as a people who do not wait to be saved but who decide to save themselves.

Meanwhile, in the village of Dededo, where many are still without electricity, a traditional navigator I know is training a new cohort of apprentices—his grade-school nieces and nephews—in the names of the stars.

Despite the challenges of temporarily housing four generations (17 people in total) under one roof, he told me that the typhoon is a teacher. That modernity, for all its benefits, has also brought light pollution to our islands, which gets worse every year. “The bright lights make it hard to see the stars,” he said. “So when the lights go out, our culture gets stronger.”

In need of celestial instruction myself, I joined him for some stargazing. An hour in, he reminded me about etak, a navigation technique developed by the people of the central Caroline islands. As he explained it, etak is a way of calculating one’s position at sea by triangulating the stars above three islands: the island of one’s departure, the island of one’s destination, and a third island off to the side known as a reference island.

In short, a navigator stays true to his course by tracking the rate at which the reference island moves from beneath the stars where it sat when he left his departure island toward the stars under which it should sit if he is standing on his destination island. The tricky thing becomes, however, when one’s destination is so far away that there are not enough reference islands along one’s route to complete the triangulation. In such a scenario, the navigator creates a third island—in his mind. He then uses this mythical island as a marker, dragging it under its correlating star or constellation. He goes on this way until a real island is encountered, sometimes for hundreds of miles. “We call such an island a ghost island.”

The analogy was not lost on me. Hope is a ghost island.

It is imagined, but it is also real. It is a place we hold as much in our hearts as anywhere else. It is not a home, but it is a homegoing.

And that is something.

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