Updated 5:40 a.m. ET Thursday
A massive typhoon slammed into a U.S. territory in the west Pacific, lashing the Northern Mariana Islands with gusts of Category 5 intensity Wednesday night local time. Super typhoon Yutu brought to bear maximum sustained winds of about 180 mph — much more powerful, in other words, than the historically powerful storm that hit Florida two weeks ago.
The islands of Saipan, Tinian and Rota remain under typhoon warnings from the National Weather Service, while Guam and several smaller islands have been placed under a tropical storm warning. And the NWS expects typhoon conditions to continue through late Thursday morning local time.
"The strongest winds have already occurred and will continue to slowly
diminish through the day," the service said.
The tone of the latest update was significantly more subdued than the one sent as Yutu prepared to make landfall. "Catastrophic winds for Tinian and Saipan are imminent!" officials said. "Super Typhoon Yutu is a very dangerous Category 5 storm!"
Those exclamations were warranted.
Meteorologists described the storm as not only "Earth's strongest storm of 2018" but also "one of the most intense hurricane strikes on record for the United States and its territories." The more than 50,000 people who live in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands faced a storm surge of up to 20 feet and rainfall of up to 10 inches in certain areas.
Michael Ziobro, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Guam, told NPR that instruments on Saipan and Tinian "gave out" after recording winds of about 104 mph.
"We saw photos, images of destruction from their airport and two other facilities, and just debris strewn about everywhere across that island," Nick Delgado, a reporter at KUAM News in Guam, south of Tinian, told NPR.
"So we know that the Coast Guard and other local government officials are working to get things back up and running there, but at this point it's just all hands on deck to get these islands back to normal," Delgado said.
The typhoon's intensity escalated at an "unbelievable" pace prior to hitting the islands, according to meteorologist Steve Bowen, just two weeks after Hurricane Michael's intensification in the Gulf of Mexico stunned meteorologists, too.
"As the storm starts to rapidly intensify, it takes on this buzz-saw-like shape. It becomes very well-defined," Angela Fritz of The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang told NPR earlier this month, referring to Michael's surprising escalation. "You have this sinking feeling that things are about to get much worse than the forecast had suggested."
Michael caused catastrophic damage to communities in the Florida Panhandle, where the storm made landfall.
The extent of the damage in the Marianas remains unclear, but the NWS in Guam did not mince words upon its approach.
"Devastating damage is expected. Collapse of some residential structures will put lives at risk. Airborne debris will cause extensive damage," the service warned. "Persons ... pets ... and livestock struck by the wind-blown debris will be injured or killed."
The storm is now moving away from the Mariana Islands — though that does not mean it is finished. Super Typhoon Yutu continues to beat a path northwest and has the potential to threaten the Philippines or Taiwan in the days to come.