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Super Typhoon Yutu brings devastation to Northern Mariana Islands

Category 5 equivalent slams US territory

(CNN) - Super Typhoon Yutu slammed into the US territory of the Northern Mariana Islands Wednesday night, destroying homes and cutting power and water to thousands of residents.

The storm strengthened into the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane with sustained wind speeds of 280 kph (174 mph) before hitting the islands, and is now tracking northwest toward the Philippines and Taiwan.

Yutu is the strongest storm on record to hit the remote island communities of Saipan and Tinian, the largest of the Mariana Islands, home to about 55,000 people. It's also one of the strongest storms to ever hit a US territory, and one of the strongest tropical cyclones on the planet this year.

"Tinian has been devastated by Typhoon Yutu," Mayor of Tinian and Aguigan, Joey Patrick San Nicolas, said in a video posted to Facebook. "Many homes have been destroyed, our critical infrastructure has been compromised. We currently have no power and water at this time."

Several areas of the island, which has a population of about 3,500, are inaccessible, and authorities are yet to complete a preliminary assessment of the damage. Heavy machinery has been deployed to clear debris from roads so first responders can reach people cut off by the storm.

"Tinian has been destroyed by Typhoon Yutu, but our spirits have not," the mayor's office said.

Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands authorities issued a weather warning late Wednesday, cautioning residents on Saipan and Tinian that storm surges "pose life-threatening risk for those living along the coast." Surges of five to seven feet were recorded for those islands.

As of 9 a.m. local time, the storm had passed over the islands but Saipan and Tinian will continue to experience damaging winds into the evening, authorities said in an updated briefing Thursday. A tropical storm warning is also still in effect for the nearby US territory of Guam, which experienced tropical storm force winds and gusts.

"We just went though one of the worst storms I've seen in all my experience in emergency management," Homeland Security and Emergency Management Special Assistant Gerald J. Deleon Guerrero said in a statement.

Residents on Saipan island endured a sleepless night.

Lydia Barcinas, who moved into her house on Saipan in May, told CNN that her family hid from the storm in their flooded pantry.

"My family stayed because we thought it'll be fine," she says. "Now (we are) just trying to find something to eat and drink" and "looking for medicine under the rubble."

In a video posted to Facebook, Barcinas surveys the damage to her home. Her roof has been completely ripped off and power lines are down outside. "Venturing out, this is the inside of my house," she says in the video. "Total destruction."

Brad Ruszala drove around Saipan Thursday looking for his dog, Sparkles. In a video posted to Facebook, he can be seen walking through his damaged home. Ruszala hears whining and discovers his dog hiding in what looks like a cabinet.

"She is fine," he tells CNN. "All of our neighbors lost their roofs."

Rosemond and Gary Sword also drove around the island documenting the damage. They told CNN that a lot of people have lost their homes and many business have been destroyed.

"We are resilient islanders. We will recover and we will recover together," they said.

Super Typhoon Yutu is forecast to retain its intensity over the next 24 hours, before weakening slightly. Despite weakening, the storm will remain an incredibly strong super typhoon throughout the weekend as it tracks toward the Philippines and Taiwan.

It's currently about 175 kilometers (108 miles) west of the Mariana Islands, moving northwest through the Philippine Sea at 20 kph (12 mph).

Once the world's biggest air base, Tinian island is known for being the launching point for the atomic bomb attacks against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan on August 6 and 9, 1945, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.


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