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Typhoon Mawar lashes Guam, US island territory known as 'Where America's Day Begins'

The powerful Typhoon Mawar that lashed Guam on Thursday has interrupted travel and tropical island life for residents and U.S. military members in one of the nation’s most remote territories.

The island in the Pacific Ocean is known for a cheerful greeting drawn from the Indigenous Chamorro language: “Hafa Adai,” which generally means “Hello.” Visitors learn that Guam is “Where America's Day Begins," as it is hours ahead of Hawaii, Alaska and the U.S. mainland, and the jet-lagged traveler will certainly notice the humidity.

They'll also see seagulls and sunsets, but probably no songbirds. Non-native brown tree snakes, introduced after World War II, decimated the native jungle bird population on the largest of the tropical Mariana Islands.

People born on Guam are U.S. citizens with a huge time difference from those on the mainland. The sun rises 14 hours earlier for the 170,500 people who live on Guam than in New York City. Wednesday afternoon in Washington, D.C., was Thursday morning in Guam's capital city, Hagatna.

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WHERE IS GUAM?

The island is south of Japan, west of the International Date Line and marks the boundary of the Pacific Ocean and the Philippine Sea. It is about 3,900 miles (6,275 kilometers) west of Hawaii and 1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers) east of the Philippine capital, Manila. By comparison, Seattle to Miami is about 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers).

Guam is 30 miles (48 kilometers) long and about 8.5 miles (13.7 kilometers) at its widest — kidney-shaped like Lake Michigan, but only about one-tenth the size of the Great Lake.

It is the southernmost in an island chain also including Rota, Tinian and Saipan — names notable for World War II battles. Tinian was the launching point for the Enola Gay atomic bomb attacks against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Earth's deepest undersea feature, the Mariana Trench, is about 230 miles (370 kilometers) southwest of the islands. It sinks to almost 7 miles (11 kilometers) below sea level.

U.S. MILITARY BASES

Guam hosts two large and regionally strategic U.S. military bases: Andersen Air Force Base on the northern end of the island and Naval Base Guam in Apra Harbor southwest of Hagatna.

The island is about 1,500 miles (2,500 kilometers) south of Tokyo and roughly equidistant from North Korea and Australia.

A former military air strip on the island highlands is now the commercial Antonio B. Won Pat International Airport. A Korean Air flight from Seoul crashed on approach in August 1997, killing more than 200 of 254 people aboard. Accounts of the number of survivors vary.

WHAT'S GUAM WEATHER LIKE?

Year-round temperatures, day and night, generally remain in the 80's Fahrenheit, around 30 Celsius, with 80% humidity common. Sunshine is intense, since the island is closer to the equator than the U.S. mainland. Rain showers are frequent but often lead to color-splashed sunsets.

Thursday's Typhoon Mawar may rank among the most severe storms to hit the island. The National Weather Service ranked Pongsona in December 2002 as the third-worst to strike the island, comparing it with Paka in November 1997. They were exceeded only by Karen in 1962 and an unnamed typhoon in 1900.

TROPICAL TOURISM

The economy of Guam is driven by tourism. Cruise ships dock at Apra Harbor and festivals invite shoppers to Chamorro Village for crafts, dances, souvenirs and rides on a miniature water buffalo called a carabao, introduced to the island by the Spanish in the 17th century as farm beasts of burden.

High-rise hotels frame a tropical beach on crescent-shaped Tumon Bay. An island drive passes war memorials and the Pacific War Museum, Chamorro villages, Pago Bay Overlook and ancient latte stone pillars — the origin of which remains unclear.

Duty-free outlets and boutiques invite hotel guests to shop. Sailing, fishing and scuba diving charters depart from Hagatna harbor. The island has several lush golf courses. Snorkelers and visitors to Fish Eye Marine Park observatory can see colorful reef fish darting along a harbor seabed still pocked by bomb craters.

HOW DID GUAM BECOME A U.S. TERRITORY?

Magellan Point near the southeastern island village of Umatac marks the spot where the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, sailing under the Spanish flag, is believed to have reached Guam in 1521.

The United States captured the island in a bloodless encounter during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Japan invaded in December 1941 along with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. American troops battled ashore and retook the island in 1944.

Almost 28 years later, in January 1972, a Japanese soldier was discovered living in the jungle near the central island village of Talofofo. His name was Shoichi Yokoi. He hadn’t gotten word that the war had ended.

In 1950, Guam became a U.S. territory. Its residents are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in federal elections. The island has a non-voting delegate to Congress, Republican James Moylan.

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Ritter reported from Las Vegas.