On the Waterfront – Pongsona + 20

(Pensacola, Florida; Dec. 8, 2022) –Typhoon Pongsona schwacked the island of Guam twenty years ago today.

I arrived on the island for my new assignment at the Fleet Imaging Command, Pacific’s photo lab aboard Naval Base Guam barely three weeks earlier in November.  I landed on island just after my 32nd birthday, but don’t let the ’32’ fool you; I was still a tall, skinny, gawky (boy, was I gawky!) kid.  Dashing, charming, and exquisitely funny, but a big kid.

I grew up dealing with tropical cyclones from the time I was 10.  We’d moved to the former Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines for one of my dad’s assignments in 1982 when experienced our first typhoon.  We lived through a few more until leaving the Philippines in 1986, but none ever made a direct strike on our part of Luzon.

Pop’s career took us from typhoons in the Philippines to hurricanes in Florida in 1985.  To be honest, after four years of living with tropical weather, the hardest thing for my family wasn’t the storms.  Nope; it was breaking the habit of saying “typhoon” in favor of “hurricane.”  From that first typhoon in 1982 until 2002, neither I nor my family ever experienced a direct strike from the center of a tropical cyclone.  We came damned close in 1995 when Hurricane Opal made landfall in Pensacola Beach, Florida.  Pensacola Beach is a little over 40 miles west of Niceville, where my folks lived (I was in Tallahassee by then, and Mom came to stay with me while Pop had to report for duty).  Niceville was in the worst quadrant for a storm moving north, but the eye wall was well west of our town.

National Weather Service satellite image of Typhoon Pongsona making landfall on Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. (Dec. 8, 2002)

So there I was, Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class (or ‘PH2’) Miller, checking into the photo lab, living in a temporary barracks, and buying a used car.  I’d already met some people through the Christian Servicemens Center (CSC), a military ministry on the campus of Bayview Baptist Church in the village of Maite (about halfway up Guam’s west coast).  When word came that Tropical Storm Pongsona was likely going to schwack the island, I accepted an invitation from my new ‘gang’ to shelter at the CSC instead of riding it out alone in the barracks.  (Trivia note: the name “Pongsona” was contributed to the Pacific tropical cyclone list by North Korea.  The hermit kingdom has few interactions with the wider world, and storm preparedness is one of them.  Pongsona is the Korean name for the garden balsam, also called the ‘touch-me-not’ and ‘spotted snapweed.’)

Locking up my barracks room the evening of December 7th, I loaded some camping items, books, and my laptop computer into my new old car.  My first stop was the base gas station, and I was shocked the place wasn’t backed-up with cars waiting for fuel.  I was the only person there filling up, and that just confused the hell out of me.  I mean, I grew up in Florida.  The first rule of tropical preparedness is to gas up your car in case you have to skedaddle!

I was halfway through filling my tank when it hit me: I’m gassing up my car in case I have to evacuate…but I’m on an island.  Where the hell would I evacuate to?!  I lauged at myself while filling the car, but I reckoned it was a good idea anyway.  After all, that would at least be one small thing I wouldn’t have to worry about for a while after the storm!

Turns out that filling up my car was one of the smartest things I ever did in my Navy career.  Seriously! Keep reading…

A small crowd was socializing at the CSC when I got there.  By now Guam had nothing to do but wait, and it appeared now-Typhoon Pongsona would probably strike on us dead-on.  Still, all we could do was chill, talk, and just be ready. 

The evening was fun, but finally petered out to seven of us: Lt. Dustin Koritko, Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Phil Smith, Steel Worker 3rd Class Aaron Killingbeck, Hospitalman 3rd Class Kareena Robles, Air Force Staff Sgt. Eric Rutter, myself, and Mrs. Christy Bowlby.  Christy’s husband was stationed aboard the submarine tender USS Frank Cable (AS 40).  He had to get underway with the ship to get out of the storm’s way.  Christy stayed with us at the CSC instead of riding out the storm alone at her and Jeremy’s house on base.  Phil was also ship’s company aboard the Frank Cable, but the ship had detailed him to remain with the ‘beach detachment’ responsible for getting the ship’s pier and shore buildings rehabbed after the storm.

Kareena was the last to leave because she had to report for duty at the naval hospital during the storm.  It was already windy and raining when she left.  She’d relate her own adventures to me later!

Noon: winds are near 50 knots and the roof of Bayview Baptist’s educztion building is starting to peel back. Maite, Guam. (Nathanael Miller, December 8, 2002)

The fall of night on Dec. 7th found four Navy sailors, one Air Force airman, and one civilian spouse all under the roof of this building overlooking a gorgeous coastal cliff off western Guam.  The CSC had been built in the 1950s shortly before the founding of Bayview Baptist Church, which sat adjacent to the center.  The center had successfully weathered typhoons with nary more than leaking windows for over half a century, so we were perfectly confident the building would again stand the test of time.

Yeeeaaahhh…….Nope.

The center had a male bunkroom, but no female bunkroom because it was built back in the days of the male-only military.  Long-range plans were being bandied about the center and Bayview Baptist Church to provide accommodations for women, but those were still a ways out.  Still, the five of us guys were not about to make Christy sleep in the common area, so we ensured she had a bunk, and we set ground rules among ourselves to maintain a certain level of modesty in the bunkroom out of respect for her.  We also had three ‘center dogs’ staying with us: Home Joe, Sunny, and her brother, Kidd.  All three were island dogs, so this wasn’t their first rodeo, either.

I woke up around 07:00 on December 8th to Dustin leading the effort to cook everything possible before the power went out (that was inevitable, so you just cook up everything you can to save it from spoilage).  We had enough pancakes to last for weeks after that!  They weren’t half bad, either…

The radio reported the typhoon had strengthened and stabilized on a northwesterly course that did indeed aim directly at Guam.  The eye would pass over Andersen Air Force Base on the northern tier of the island.  That meant the eye wall—the strongest winds in the storm—would pass over the village of Maite.

Just in case you forgot, Maite was the village we were in.  We laughed that this would probably be ‘The Year’ the center was demolished!

The winds grew exponentially during the day.  We saw a warehouse across from us begin shuddering and its roof start rippling before heavy rains obscured it from view.  We took advantage of the lull between early bands to pop out of the center and check on Bayview Baptist.  The signs weren’t encouraging.  The edge of the sanctuary’s roof beginning to ripple already, and this with winds under 50 knots.  The six of us quickly realized the church was about to sustain heavy damage, but the center (with its concrete roof) we expected to hold strong.

The Enhanced Fujita Scale is used in the United States for classifying tornadoes based on wind speed.  An EF-2 tornado has wind speeds ranging from 113 – 157 miles per hour.  Pongsona’s eyewall delivered sustained winds of 144 miles per hour—and we were in that eyewall for hours.  Basically, the six of us lived through a day-long EF-2 tornado!  Those sustained winds don’t factor in the 173 mph gusts continually crashing over the island!

And, yes, winds of that magnitude really do sound like freight trains smashing through your brain.

As the afternoon came on and the winds kept accelerating, I called Phil over to the front door.  A small, silver hatchback car that had been parked next to the Bayview Baptist nursery building was moving.  Its brakes were locked, but the car was sliding across the property, slowing spinning as it did so (oh, how I wish I had video capability at that time, but I didn’t get that until 2004).

We’d put the typhoon shutters up over the CSC’s windows, but we began to feel the first stirrings of real concern when we realized some of the shutters were starting to vibrate out of their mountings.  In other words, the winds were beginning to tear them off the windows.  We knew the floor would flood, but we were not expecting the walls around the windows to start failing!  Jets of high-pressure spray were drenching the center’s common area by mid-afternoon.  One of the center’s vent fans on the roof began squealing like a pig in a tree chipper.  That sound was, by far, the most horrible part of the day.

We could handle the roaring of the winds.   But the banshee-like shrieking of that fan was a knife blade cutting out our ears.  The damn thing didn’t go quiet for nearly two hours until it was ripped clean off the roof.

The six of us weren’t taking things lightly; quite the reverse.  We apprehensively realized this half-century-old building had finally met its match, but there was nowhere to go, so there was no point in panicking.  We’d just have to meet each crisis as it came and laugh about it later.

Our good humor took a vacation when the back wall in the library collapsed.  Image the building as a concrete gazebo.  The open areas between the concrete pillars were filled in with aluminum framing containing a set of jalousie windows above and below a center plate-glass pane.  This was an easy type of tropical structure to build, and the center had stood for 50 years.

Thus, the six of us watched in understandable disbelief when one entire aluminum panel tore loose.  The first sign of the breach was the upper jalousie windows getting blasted inward as if by some crazed air cannon.  Not five minutes later the entire panel tore away from the concrete framing, opening the library room—and the rest of the center—to the full force of Pongsona’s 144 mph winds.

The typhoon was now, quite literally, inside the center with us!

The moment of destruction: I happened to catch the instant the back wall of the library collapsed, letting the full force of Pongsona’s winds blast into the center. (Nathanael Miller, Dec. 8, 2002)

The bunkroom was now the only room left intact.  There was about an inch or two of standing water on the floor, but the bottom bunks were mercifully several inches higher than the water.  (Considering I was using a bottom bunk, I was very happy about this!).  We took turns heading out into the common area to assess the ongoing damage, but we were fortunate the bunkroom’s walls, window, and roof remained stable.

I think it was nearly midnight before the storm abated.  Wandering out into the CSC’s kitchen and common area with flashlights and shoes on, we began to survey the devastation.  Shattered glass from the cliff-side windows coated the sopping wet rug.  The accordion divider separating the kitchen area from the common room was torn apart.  Books, video tapes, and other library items were now, well, everywhere.

Several kitchen cabinets had been breached, resulting in numerous bowls, plates, pans, and utensils littering the building.  Imagine your local Bath & Body Works exploding.  Yep, it was just like that.

We had a devil of time keeping the three dogs in the bunkroom.  The glass on the floor was a real danger to their unprotected paws, but they would not stay put.  Frankly, after the noise and destruction and all, I can’t blame them.  Even dogs raised in a tropical environment don’t usually live through the kind of tornado-force destruction we experienced that night.

December 9th revealed scenes of devastation I’d never expected to see anywhere except on a TV screen.  Bayview Baptist Church was destroyed.  Flat-out destroyed.  The sanctuary, education building, and detached nursery were all ripped to shreds.  The warehouse across the property from us simply didn’t exist anymore. The silver hatchback Phil and I watched being pushed by the winds was later found just off the property in a ditch buried under debris.  Down below us on Marine Corps Drive—the island’s main artery—cars inched along, crawling over sand and debris.  The palm trees were shredded, and many were torn down.  A few palm trees were entirely missing, a hole in the rocky ground the only evidence they’d ever existed.  It was surreal.

Damage to the Christian Servicemens Center following Super Typhoon Pongsona. Maite, Guam. (Nathanael ‘Sparky’ Miller, December 9, 2002)

Most of the gang had pulled their cars right up to the center’s front (its eastern side) to protect them from the winds that, due to the storm’s rotation, would mostly hit us from the west.  Those cars were intact and only covered with palm fronds.  My new used car had been pulled up under Bayview Baptist’s front to protect it from the winds.  We found it still there…just under at least half of Bayview Baptist’s roof.  Took about half an hour to pull enough debris off it for me to discover that, burial aside, the car was in perfect order!

Dead fish littered the yard, blown out of the bays by the terrifying winds.  Trust me, finding fish on top of a 100-foot cliff is not something you see every day!

Somewhere south of us a huge pillar of smoke rose to the sky.  Sadly, this was not some great sign of the Lord Almighty, but rather the mark of a huge fire bellowing somewhere near the Navy base.

I was the only photo lab member to shelter off base, so I was the only one to get any off-base photos.  Had I known none of my new shipmates in the photo lab were off base, I’d have taken time to document a lot more damage than I did.  Instead, I got into traffic and snaked my way to work, stopping only occasionally to get a photo.  Marine Corps Drive was covered in at least an inch of wet sand (deeper in many places).  Trees, power lines, pieces of buildings, parts of cars, and fragments of boats turned the sea-level road into a maze of hazards.

I spent the rest of the day documenting damage on the main base and its subsidiary site, Polaris Point.  PH2 Chris Borgren went aloft and did aerial coverage while our boss, PH1 John Portish, and PH3 Shawn Morrison, covered the damage at the Naval Hospital.  We conducted these jobs while hearing increasing reports of the devastation meted out to the islands north of us in the rest of the Marianas chain.  We shook our heads, compartmentalized our disbelief, and got on with our jobs.

The great fire I saw in the distance turned out to be Guam’s fuel farm on Cabras Island (a small coastal island now joined to the mainland by a causeway).  A lightning strike during the typhoon ignited a fuel tank nearest the fuel farm’s entrance, thus cutting off all access to the entire farm. 

This was the greatest crisis for Guam in Pongsona’s immediate aftermath because the island’s entire fuel supply was cut off.  Even if crews could reach the intact tanks, they could not risk trying to transport fuel past the inferno spewing from the burning tank.

Remember me saying filling up my car was one of the smartest moves of my entire career?  Well, I was the only person at the photo lab who had a full tank of gas.  Heck, I was one of the only people on base who had a full tank!

The storm rendered 65% of the island’s wells inoperative (either through damage or contamination).  There was at least $52 million in electrical equipment damage alone.  Guam officials estimated that 1,300 homes were flat-out destroyed, with more than 4,000 homes suffering some level of damage.  We got hit with a storm surge that reached 20 feet above high tide in some locations, and the University of Guam measured 25.61 inches of rain during on Dec. 8th.  There were 193 reported injuries, but only one death—and that was only indirectly caused by the storm.  Sadly, a 71-year-old Guamanian woman was struck by flying glass.  She later died of a heart attack during the height of the typhoon when emergency personnel were unable to deploy.

Pongsona caused $700 million in damage to Guam (that’s about $1.05 billion in 2022 dollars).  It’s the 5th costliest storm to hit the island.   When I transferred off island in the middle of 2006, there were some parts of Guam that still hadn’t had electricity restored.

The story of the recovery from the typhoon was a long one.  I ended up living in the photo lab for a couple of weeks because my temporary barracks had no power—and no screens on the windows.  I couldn’t open the windows for fresh air without letting every mosquito on the island into my room.  The photo lab at least had window screens in addition to the fact it was on a generator, so I had power.

The Pongsona Six, as we Christian Servicemens Center survivors called ourselves, still hold a special bond to this day.  I’ve lost touch with Dustin, and, most sadly, Christy Bowlby passed away in 2015.  Life waits for none of us, but continues to move on.  Even so, the six of us will always, always share the unique frightening and exciting experience of surviving a major typhoon in a building that was largely demolished around us.

If you’re curious to know more, check out my video on the storm’s anniversary.  I’ve been able to get some anecdotes from Phil Smith, Eric Rutter, and Kareena Christian, so you’ll be able to add their memories and perspectives to mine here for a fuller picture of the event.  The video is at:

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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