Typhoon Mawar was the most devastating storm to hit the U.S. territory of Guam in over 20 years. In response to this climate change-induced disaster, community-led organizations are fighting to recover and build long-term resilience.
On Guam, as on many other Pacific Islands, typhoons have been common throughout the island’s history. For centuries, Indigenous CHamorus (also spelled “Chamorros”) created architectural innovations and social systems that enabled local resilience to these intense and periodic natural disasters. These traditions still have lasting legacies, made evident by the cultural significance of latte stones as a symbol of strength and resilience. However, the advent of Spanish contact and subsequent colonization in the 16th and 17th centuries marked a turning point, as external forces began to erode this social resilience through the infliction of warfare, disease, and human rights violations.
Furthermore, while modern globalization provides some economic benefits for remote islands, the system can also exacerbate inequalities. This is due to factors such as over reliance on international supply chains as opposed to local resources, which creates vulnerable supply chain bottlenecks. This manufactured dependence leaves communities vulnerable to being cut off from needed support during disasters like typhoons or other crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The precarious nature of Pacific Islands in the modern age is increasingly worsened by the impacts of climate change. Typhoons are among a lengthy list of climate-induced threats like ocean acidification, drought, and sea level rise that threaten ecological and social resilience.
Typhoon Mawar hit Guam on May 24th, 2023 as a category 4 cyclone, resulting in widespread destruction. While no deaths or serious injuries have been directly linked to Mawar, Guam experienced widespread flooding and winds that devastated key infrastructure. People across the island lost access to water and due to water contamination, five of Guam’s nineteen villages still have precautionary boil water notices one month after Mawar landed. An estimated 602 homes were destroyed and 1,030 additional homes faced major damage. Additionally, power infrastructure was significantly hindered as roughly 98% of the island had no electricity during and immediately following the storm.
In response to the emergency conditions created by Typhoon Mawar, community-led organizations have been working to support rapid recovery and foster long-term resilience on the island. Dr. Austin Shelton, Director of the University of Guam’s Center for Island Sustainability (CIS) and Steering Committee Co-Chair for Guam Green Growth (G3), helped mobilize the organizations he spearheads to respond to Mawar’s aftermath. The G3 Conservation Corps began by cleaning up debris from roadways on and near the university campus so people would be able to better access spaces to assess damage. The organization then focused on supporting the Governor’s food commodities distribution program, as most grocery stores and other food outlets were closed due to water and power outages. Dr. Shelton said, in an interview to the East-West Center in Washington that, “along with a big team of volunteers we prepared, bagged, and distributed over 7,500 bags with about 40 pounds of food in each one.”
Parallel to these efforts, Micronesia Climate Change Alliance (MCCA) has also been working to rebuild and adapt to climate change post-Mawar. “We were founded after Typhoon Yutu hit the Northern Mariana Islands in 2018 and this event of Typhoon Mawar has brought us back to our roots of rapid response and mutual aid” said Cami Diaz Egurrola, Director of Communications at MCCA in an interview to the East-West Center in Washington. This group has been able to bring together funds donated primarily by members of the CHamoru diaspora to acquire and distribute basic need items for recovering communities. Outside of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the largest CHamoru populations reside in California, Washington, and Texas. Nearly half of the roughly 78,000 CHamorus living in U.S. states are on the West Coast.
Diaspora organizations on the U.S. West Coast like inafamaolek.us and Guma’ Chamorro have partnered with MCCA to send shipping containers full of supplies from both Oakland and San Diego to Guam. This includes goods like water, food, and diapers, as well as long-lasting tools like solar-powered lights and chargers. As recovery and rebuilding efforts are underway, this presents a clear opportunity to invest in resilient energy systems, such as solar microgrids that have shown promise in storm-prone islands like Puerto Rico.
Beyond material goods, MCCA has also focused on organizing wellness check-ins so community members can ensure that their neighbors are safe. This is particularly important to support vulnerable groups like elderly people and those with no access to transportation or telecommunications. Egurrola discusses how systems of social reciprocity and mutuality have been crucial to resilience on Guam throughout history, “We want to remind our community that these practices of chencule’ and inafa’maolek have been a part of our culture for thousands of years.”
Much of G3 and MCCA’s ability to successfully respond to Typhoon Mawar is a result of their long-term preparations and visions for a more sustainable and self-sufficient island. For example, Dr. Shelton describes how the University of Guam Sea Grant was able to donate tilapia from their recirculating aquaponics program, “We had fish that were big enough to harvest already, so while people were waiting in line for water from their Mayor’s office, we took what we could from out of our tanks and we distributed that food.” G3 leads other resilient food system programs through their community gardens where they grow fruits and vegetables, and share knowledge so community members create thriving gardens in their own homes. These programs are also aligned with MCCA’s commitment to creating food sovereignty by drawing on traditional Indigenous practices.
Federal support and external humanitarian aid are also contributing to Typhoon recovery efforts through institutions like FEMA and the Red Cross. The Red Cross has sent over 380 trained disaster workers to support recovery efforts and has provided about 3,400 meals per day. Following the initial emergency declaration on Typhoon Mawar from President Biden, FEMA has approved nearly $38 million in assistance for individuals and families and continues to operate four disaster recovery centers that have received about 13,000 visitors since opening.
While this significant level of federal aid has been impactful, community-led organizations like G3 and MCCA are demonstrating that Pacific Islands like Guam can and must be locally resilient. In the face of compounding disasters that are being exacerbated by climate change, Cami Diaz Egurrola emphasizes the strength of Guam’s communities saying, “We are resilient, and we hold so much power when we are united.”
Thank you to Dr. Austin Shelton from the University of Guam’s Center for Island Sustainability and Guam Green Growth, and Cami Diaz Egurrola from Micronesia Climate Change Alliance for participating in interviews for this article. I additionally thank both organizations for providing the photos shown above and giving the East West Center in Washington permission to use them.
Kieren Rudge is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. They are a Ph.D. student in Environmental Science, Policy, & Management at University of California, Berkeley