Resilience and Compassion: Surviving a Category Five Hurricane

On the night of September 18th, 2017, Dominica was devastated by Hurricane Maria. It was a category 5 hurricane with wind speeds going up to 175 mph. This is my account of the events that night and what unfolded in the days after the hurricane.

Hurricane Maria swiftly strengthened into a category 5 storm. On the morning of September 18th, Maria was a category 2 hurricane, making its way to Dominica. By the evening, it had become a category 4 storm expected hit the island sometime around midnight. Having grown up in Chicago, I had never experienced a hurricane. The category numbers had no meaning to me since I had no frame of reference by which to judge a hurricane. I got a harsh lesson in  the destructive power of a category 5 storm that night. Around 9 pm, the winds started picking up. I could hear the whistling of the wind in my room. We had our scheduled power cut and I sat on my bed in the dark, bracing for impact.

At first, the winds would simply blow the branches on the trees outside my window back and forth. I thought the island would be alright. However, those winds were only the calm before the storm. By 11 pm, the winds had developed into a tempest. The rain was the heaviest I had ever seen in my life. It was as if god had emptied a gigantic bucket of water on the island. The wind was now making entire coconut trees bend back and forth. The wind had gone from whistling to howling. I began to get airplane ear as time went by. The winds were so great that they managed to seep in through the gaps in my doors and blow my belongings across the room. I began hearing the clang on debris on my windows and my doors.

After midnight, the wind was so strong that the back door of my apartment started to move. Had the door opened, I would have been in grave danger from the debris that was banging on my door. Thankfully, the door held. The building that I was living in was made concrete, and it withstood the storm. It did not, however, give me any measure of comfort as the storm progressed. I watched as the light outside my apartment was broken. Around 2 am, I heard a loud clang come from my kitchen. I then hear something break. When I opened my bedroom door to look, I found that my front window had broken, and the wind was fiercely blowing inside. I also saw my apartment start to get flooded with the wind pushing the water into my apartment from underneath the doors. Tiny bits of dirt and debris were mixed in with the water. The wind was so strong that I struggled to close the door to my bedroom. That was the first time that I considered the possibility that the storm would kill me.

The wind and the thumping of debris continued for another four hours. I spent those four hours sitting on my bed, staying as far away from the windows as possible. I prayed the entire night that I would survive this hurricane with no physical injury. I felt like a soldier in a trench, hoping that would not get hit. Around 5:30 am, the wind subsided. Somehow, I managed to sleep for two hours before waking up to the noise to my neighbors talking to each other.

I decided to to go outside and see how they were doing. I was in for quite a shock. All of the leaves from the trees near our building had gathered on our doorstep. A chair had made its way in front of my door. There was still some light rain from the storm. I walked over to the other side of my floor to see the ocean! I had never seen the ocean from my apartment because it was covered by trees. All of trees had either fallen over or were stripped bare by the wind. It was like Chicago in the winter. I looked down the street to see the roof on a building my friend lived in blown clean off. I also saw downed power lines and debris cluttering the street. I had never seen such devastation in my life. I asked myself: How in the world are we going to survive this? As I walked back to my apartment, a door opened. It was one of my neighbors. She told me that she was going to go to campus, where they had electricity and water. I decided to move to campus too, on account of our building not having any utilities. I packed by backpack and went to campus.

The walk was a difficult one, trying to navigate all of the debris and water. On my way, received a hug from a good-heartened young woman who wished me well. I definitely needed that. It was certainly a relief to see people safe after the storm. When I got to campus, I met with some friends and we took a spot in the student center. I later went back with a friend to my apartment and packed a suitcase with my things to bring to campus. The walk back was miserable due to the heavy rain that ensued. Eventually, we made it back and stayed at our spot on the second floor of the student center. That night, we all checked in on campus so that our loved ones could be notified. While we did survive the storm, I knew my parents were worried sick at home. I wanted to speak with them as soon as possible.

That night, I decided to sleep in the student center. I heard reports of looters in the area and did not want to risk being at home in the event that armed looters arrived. I slept on the carpet that night. The next day, I woke up and ate the cereal that I had brought with me from my apartment. We received word that we would be evacuated by early next week. It was only a matter of waiting. I will always have the humorous memory of helping one my friends get into her apartment when her door was jammed. I repeatedly kicked the door with no avail. We then grabbed a large chunk of a coconut tree that was lying on the side of the road. A group of three of us used the branch as a battering ram until the door was shattered. We were certainly glad to be of service.

That afternoon, I volunteered to go to the river and fetch water for flushing. A group 9 of us drove to the river in a pickup truck and filled 5 plastic garbage bins with water and brought them to each floor of the student center. I was happy to help in any way that I could. It was our duty to help each other in this crisis.

It is to the everlasting credit of the student body that it pulled together to help both the locals and fellow students in that time of need. Students volunteered to do everything from cleaning, security patrols, rationing food and running an emergency medicine clinic on the third floor of the student center. I did not see a single student panic during the entire time that I was on the island. We all understood what needed to be done to get through the disaster. Everyone was prepared with food and water and gave it to those who lost everything in the storm. I could not be more proud to have these wonderful and resilient people as my peers.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to the storeowners in the area who opened their stores to us and gave our campus much needed food and supplies. I was a regular customer at Sunshine Market just across from campus. When I went to get some snacks, the woman behind the counter recognized me. She smiled and handed me three Twix bars for free. It was a small gesture, but it meant the world to me. I hope I can see her again and return the favor. The owners of the locals stores were instrumental in helping us survive the aftermath of the hurricane, and I cannot thank them enough.

I also cannot forget about the faculty. Many of them lost their homes on the islands. They also had families to take care of. In spite of this, they still helped us and facilitated the evacuation. Now, they are banding together to continue our semester later this month. I appreciate their kindness and fortitude at this testing time.

Over the next few days, I had spent time hanging out with friends and sleeping on chairs at night. Not having wifi meant that we had to talk to each other and play games to pass the time. It certainly gave me insight into how big a role smart phones and laptops play in our lives. Being forced to speak with each other was a transformative experience. We were able to form a bond with each other that can only exist between people who have survived traumatic events together. I made lifelong friends over those 8 days I spent in the student center. It was one of the best times of my life. I will always cherish the memories.

To help me remember, a young man I spent time with in the student center drew a caricature of me as we passed time in the student center. He was an artist and drew people for fun. I now have a souvenir from that time in my life. The drawing is a snapshot of what I looked like at the time. I had an overgrown beard and was wearing a Cubs World Championship baseball cap (Go Cubs!). I intend to frame that picture and keep it as a treasure.

On the day that I was finally evacuated along with my friends, I actually felt a sense of guilt. As the ferry pulled away from the island, I looked back at all of trees stripped bare of their leaves, the debris strewn across the land and the wreckage of what was Portsmouth. I felt bad leaving the island in such a state. However, I did not have much time to reflect on that as the ferry entered choppy waters. The small ship was thrown up and down by the wave for hours. water from the ocean splashed on us. When we arrived at St. Lucia, I had a terrible bout of sea sickness. I could not even stand up straight without dry heaving. Thankfully, there were EMS personnel at customs who helped me. I am grateful to them and the benevolence they showed me. I was given some water to drink. I vomited a dozen times before I reached the nurse’s station at St James Club. I had never been that sick in my life. One of my friends helped sign me in and take me to the nurse’s station. I ended up sleeping in the station that night.

The next day, I woke up feeling completely rejuvenated. I had my breakfast and was finally able to call my mother after a week. It was such a relief for both of us to hear our voices again. I was happy that I would be going home that day. We took American Airlines to Miami. I was on the first flight back and reached Miami in the evening. We were taken to our hotel, which was the Hyatt Regency in Coral Gables. They even had a nice buffet of food and deserts waiting for us upon our arrival! There was one young man who travelled with us whose birthday fell on that day. He was given a whopping big slice of chocolate cake with strawberries. It was great to be back in America. My flight back to Chicago was in the morning at 6:45 am. The following morning was the first time that I did not mind getting up early. I was eager to get home.

The University did a tremendous job of of organizing the evacuation and treating us well during the process. They put all of us in nice hotels and arranged for good food. They really did spoil us. The faculty and administrators must have spent many sleepless nights organizing the entire evacuation. I highly commend Ross University for the way it handled the entire situation.

When I arrived in Chicago, it was hard to believe that I really was home after the ordeal that we had all been through. Seeing my parents was the greatest relief I had ever felt. I am sure it was the same for my parents. My peers must have felt the same way when they all finally reached home as well.

This break has been very satisfying and refreshing. I got to spend quality time with my family. I look forward to going back to the floating university and seeing what is in store for us there. This will sure make a great story to tell at interviews and to my grandchildren.

To my peers, I hope all of you maintain a positive attitude at this time. The cruise ship is a interesting idea that I think will lead to yet another adventure for all of us. This will be a unique life experience that very few people have. We can all now lay claim to surviving a category 5 hurricane and then spending a semester of medical school on a cruise ship! I look forward to sharing that experience with all of you in the coming weeks. Until then, relax and spend time with your families so that you can put all your energy into finishing this semester.