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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, August 29, 2006

188 flee as super typhoon moves in

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Col. John "J.J." Torres, commander of the 15th Airlift Wing, greeted Defense Department employees and contractors arriving at Hickam Air Force Base yesterday aboard two C-17 cargo jets. They were evac-uated from Wake Island, where a super typhoon is to arrive tomorrow.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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As super typhoon Ioke heads toward tiny Wake Island, the Air Force yesterday evacuated its residents all 188 of them to Hickam Air Force Base in two C-17 cargo planes.

Ioke is expected to cause extensive damage when it hits the remote military outpost with 155 mph winds tomorrow, said Jeff Powell, lead forecaster for the National Weather Service in Honolulu.

Col. Jeffery Stephenson, vice commander for the 15th Airlift Wing at Hickam, said the storm may pass within 18 miles of the atoll, creating an 18-foot ocean surge and 40-foot waves.

"That sucker's moving. It's slamming a lot of power," said 15th Airlift Wing commander Col. John "J.J." Torres.

The 10,000-foot runway at Wake is 13 feet above sea level. Officials said there are 20 to 30 buildings, including operations centers, housing, a power plant, a clinic, a bakery, a dining hall, a small bowling alley and the Drifter's Reef bar.

Ioke has been listed as a Category 4 storm or higher for about a week, Powell said. It is now ranked as the fifth-strongest storm ever seen in the central Pacific, and the first Category 5 super typhoon in the region since Hurricane John in 1994.

Yesterday, Ioke was 560 miles southeast of Wake, on track for a direct hit on the U.S. possession, according to the forecast.

"We're just hoping that the storm turns to the right and that you get minimal damage, but you just don't know," Torres said.

The two Hickam C-17s landed just after 1:30 p.m. after flying five hours to get to Wake, spending about an hour on the ground, and making it back in four hours.

The historic atoll is 2,300 miles west of Honolulu. Six hours after attacking Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Wake Island. For 16 days, 450 U.S. Marines and sailors repelled the invasion before surrendering.

For a nation newly at war, "Remember Wake!" became a rallying cry, but the atoll of three islands has since passed into relative obscurity outside the military. Yesterday was the first time it has been evacuated because of a storm, Torres said.

In 1972, the Air Force took over operation of the islands from the Federal Aviation Administration, Torres said. It's now a military stop-off and refueling base. There were 600 to 700 aircraft flights there last year, he said.

Torres said 154 of the evacuated are Thai nationals who work for contractor Chugach McKinley Inc. About 30 more are American civilians. There are only three Air Force personnel on the main island, which is about 9 miles long.

"Some people were worried. And even now that we've left, they are worried about their things back there," said Capt. Nate Harris, who oversees Wake and arrived on one of the C-17s.

Each evacuee was allowed one suitcase and one carry-on. As people boarded the planes, there still were no strong winds or big waves.

"It was very calm, and very hot and muggy, and just very still for the last two days," said Patsy Taylor, 62, of Washington state, who has been on Wake for a year working with the morale, welfare and recreation program.

The Thai and U.S. employees were processed through Customs and Immigration and were expected to be put up in hotels by Chugach McKinley.

In addition to Air Force operations, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Defense Mapping Agency and Geospatial Agency have offices on Wake, Torres said.

Some of the concrete buildings date to the 1930s and 1940s and can withstand 130-mph winds.

"That sounds good until you get water that comes through there," Torres said.

Harris said, "if you like the outdoors, like the water, you're going to be happy" on Wake. There's great scuba diving and snorkeling and sailing inside the lagoon, he said.

One American contractor has worked there since 1974, said Scott Sweistal, 41, from Santa Barbara, Calif. Sweistal himself has lived on Wake 6 1/2 years and was among the evacuees.

"I love it there. It's a very nice place, a very nice community," he said. "There's just an immense amount of history there."

Asked how long he plans to stay on Wake, he said he didn't know. That may be up to Ioke.

"We'll see what happens this week," he said.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.