I really didn’t know what to expect. Having responded to Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Maria, traveling over 5,000 miles to replace residential roofs in the aftermath of Cyclone Yutu was an unknown. Although our team leader regularly updated us on the scope of the work and additional tools needed onsite, his knowledge was limited to the reports of the first two teams deployed that were feeling their way through a new process: working with FEMA.
The Saipan relief effort is directed by FEMA, using FEMA materials and resources. After the initial emergency response erecting temporary shelters (tents) for residents, restoring power, and providing food and water, FEMA turned to faith-based volunteers, under the VALOR initiative, to replace roofs torn off by the maximum sustained winds of 180mph of Yutu. Deployed in the initial response were building materials including lumber, tin sheeting, screws and nails warehoused in a large outdoor lot. These along with the hand and small power tools we brought were our project resources.
As a FEMA project, airfare, lodging and, food per diem were provided making it the least expensive work team experience I’ve had. Travel arrangements were made through a government contracted agency. My route took me to Tokyo where I meet up with 3 other team members. I recognized one of them from our Western Jurisdiction Disaster Academy; she introduced me the person with whom she was traveling. The third happened upon us in a food court. (I recommend distributing individual pictures of team members to the entire team for easier identification, particularly en route to Saipan; also, wearing an ERT green shirt tends to set one apart.) Over breakfast, we shared our stories of previous work teams and got acquainted. For one, this was his first mission as an ERT having just received his training and certification as an ERT.
Upon arriving in Saipan after nearly 22 hours of travel, we were met by our team leader and an additional team member. In the rental cars provided by FEMA, we first went to the hotel to deposit our luggage and then took an abbreviated island tour seeing the damage left by the cyclone and the house on which we would work the next morning. We also ate lunch at one of the many cafes and restaurants within a short distance of the hotel.
Our housing was in a comfortable nine-story hotel contracted by FEMA for work teams, including a Colorado-based electric crew replacing all the wooden power poles with concrete ones and stringing the wires. With an efficiency kitchen, we prepared our own breakfasts and lunches with locally purchased food.
Having made a run to the FEMA lot and the local UMC where some equipment is stored, we arrived onsite on Monday morning and began staging our equipment. Living on the property in a shelter constructed by his brother was Jamie, who graciously received us and provided hospitality beyond our expectations throughout our eight days at that location. Once in a routine, our work days began at 6:00 and ended around 2:00.
The work itself required knowledge of roof construction. To our benefit, we had three capable minds to engineer the replacement of some trusses, creation of eaves, cutting the angles of the tin roofing, and modifying the ridge caps. The challenge we faced was using the materials FEMA made available and applying them to our situation. Flexibility and creativity were essential. (Most residential structures don’t have 2X6” purlins.) Occasionally, it was necessary to acquire miscellaneous parts from one of the several hardware stores.
Not climatized to tropical weather, hydration was critical. Using our own water bottles, we filled them from a 5-gallon Igloo container. We carefully monitored each other for signs of dehydration and took frequent breaks under the shelter of a portable canopy provided by UMCOR.
As FEMA has a Monday through Friday work week, our work days followed the same giving us the weekends to rest and explore the rich history of the island that we learned was critical to the victory in the Pacific during WWWII. The ocean waters were inviting and warm as were the island people. Whether it was seeing one of the groups wearing an ERT shirt in a public place or casual conversation, the residents were grateful for our presence and work. We could not have felt more welcomed and appreciated.
Upon completing the work on our first house, we were able to replace a small roof on a second in three days. The crew following our team needed only to install some pieces of plywood to complete the job the following Monday.
The greatest benefit of the Saipan experience, other than rendering critical relief to the survivors, was the personal relationships forged with the team members. The life stories, experiences, and challenges we shared created a bond beyond casual friendships. We are invested not only in a common experience but in each other. I see each team member as a God-given gift to me.
I’m thankful not only for the opportunity to serve in such a meaningful way and the experience itself but also for the life-long relationships formed on that remote island in the Pacific.
Shre this story with anyone who might be interested in your neighborhood or church. Contact Kathy Bryson, Yutu Project Coordinator/Cal-Pac Conference, at for a volunteer application and Yutu fact sheet. Teams leave every 2 weeks through next Spring. FEMA pays for all travel, housing, supplies, and a per diem for food. You pay for your own WJ UMC mission trip insurance and a few cheap ERT t-shirts.