By Marg Stark
Last October, the Pacific Islands of Tinian and Saipan were ravaged by the second strongest tropical storm ever
to hit the United States and its territories. Making landfall at peak intensity, super typhoon Yutu decimated the region, taking 29 lives, causing up to a billion dollars in damage, and leaving the entire population of the Northern Mariana Islands without electricity. Even worse, Yutu came on the heels of another Category 5 storm, Mangkut, which killed 134 people and left Guam’s 160,000 residents without power for more than a week.
In the wake of this double whammy, the responders charged with cleaning up and restoring infrastructure faced treacherous conditions. But thanks to a coveted federal grant, UC San Diego experts were deployed to the Pacific Islands to attend to the health and well-being of these crews with mission-critical safety training and interventions.
“The workers we encountered were in imminent danger of death or serious injury,” says Van Howell, an instructor with the UC San Diego OSHA Training Institute Education Center (OTIEC)
who led the team that deployed to Guam, Tinian, Saipan, and Rota. “Our impact was clear: We saved lives.”
TRAINERS DEPLOYED TO DECIMATED ISLANDS
The first pilot to make it to Tinian after typhoon Yutu said the island looked like a “war zone, as if an atomic bomb had been dropped.” Most homes were damaged or destroyed, its airport and its only health center significantly damaged. Similarly, in Saipan, most roofs had been ripped off, vegetation stripped, and the airport was gutted.
UC San Diego Extension instructors Dan Mooney and Robert Fernandez traveled to Tinian, Saipan, and Rota islands four months later to find damage was still extensive. A $248,000 Susan Hardwood grant enabled the teams to conduct both classroom and on-site outreach in a month-long mission early this year.
“In the aftermath of these storms, people are so motivated to clean up. Many volunteers show up to help without necessarily being trained,” says Mooney, who retired in 2018 from OSHA, where he was a team leader. He and Fernandez, who worked in construction for more than 30 years, were eager to introduce best practice safeguards in classes they taught and in “tailgate training” — driving around and visiting with crews they encountered on their job sites.
In the recovery phase, Fernandez says, “The workers often have this wonderful ‘get the job done’ mindset. But they will often demo a wall without regard for mold, fungi, asbestos, lead and other hazards.” To mitigate these risks, Mooney explains, “we taught them to use respirators, to wear long-sleeve shirts, safety shoes, and the like.”
Classroom instruction was also devoted to preventing water- and insect-borne diseases, such as leptospirosis and dengue fever. “Contaminated water is par for the course after these storms,” Mooney says. “We taught them the hygiene and protections they need to manage these biological hazards.”
Howell and instructor Russ Barringer focused their training efforts on Guam. There, they came upon a single worker standing in the middle of a three-way intersection directing gridlocked traffic around a work site while his crew removed downed trees, debris, and broken asphalt from the road. Barringer and Howell initiated a conversation with the job foreman, recommending proper signage, cones, paddles, and staffing methods that ultimately could have saved the flagger’s life and managed the hazards of the cleanup crew’s job. “They had all the materials at hand, and by the time we left, they had three flaggers working the scene in a coordinated fashion,” Barringer recalls. “Everyone we talked to was respectful and receptive to our direction.”
STRENGTHENING THE RELATIONSHIP WITH OSHA
Both Howell and Mooney are retired from jobs at OSHA, which typically suspends citations and referrals for safety violations in the wake of disasters. Indeed, Howell was deployed to perform similar onsite education after Hurricane Katrina and at the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attack. “Collaborating with workers in the midst of a crisis furthers the respect they have for OSHA and demonstrates the importance we place on their safety,” Howell says.
Ann Marie Pelobello
, UC San Diego Extension liaison with Guam Contractors Association, says, “The training UC San Diego offered was simply awesome. The instructors’ level of experience and their interactions with the students exceeded all our expectations, and we are so much better prepared now for the typhoons that are so common here.”
The Susan Harwood grant is “designed to provide resources to employers in underserved areas,” says Howell. He was alerted by a colleague at OSHA that the funds might be available to UC San Diego’s Occupational Safety and Health Department based on the center’s ongoing education work. Indeed, the grant was awarded to UC San Diego in September 2018, right before more storms hit.
There was an overwhelming response to the classes the instructors offered in Guam and the surrounding islands. They expected to teach 100 people, but extended their reach to over 500 locals in the course of their visits. Construction workers, those who aspired to work in construction, and others interested in the safety courses attended.
The grant allowed classes to be offered free of charge, which Pelobello says was a gift to communities already economically stressed in the wake of the storms. “This was particularly helpful for unemployed workers who got versed on OSHA standards for work they will do in the future.”
Based on the requests from various individuals, the team added classes and expanded training, Howell says “Traffic control classes were added in Guam. A class in Rota was added to address post-typhoon health and safety concerns. And we added a special class for the hotel industry in Saipan, which is wildly different than we would find here on the mainland, as their hotels are self-contained units, pumping their own water, processing their sewage, and generating their own power.”
Pelobello says the students in Guam and the Mariana Islands are now clamoring for more, asking, “When can we take more classes?”
TYPHOON RECOVERY EDUCATION WILL REMAIN CRITICAL
Tropical storms are predicted to increase in strength and number as oceans grow warmer. Yutu, the most powerful typhoon worldwide in 2018, was said to be the storm against which all future storms will be compared, according to one meteorologist.
In the wake of tragedy in the Pacific Rim islands, the team worked long hours with little sleep to prevent future injuries and fatalities. They became friends and partners in the process. “We were driven by a passion for safety, for passing what we know on to the next generation,” Fernandez says. “We know the students we trained will take what they learned back to the other workers. It’s a trickle-down effect. And that is very gratifying.”