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Med student returns home after Hurricane Maria

Sharita Turner, center, reunites with her mother, Lori, left, and father Isadore Turner Jr. at the Duluth Airport last week after surviving Hurricane Maria, which hit Dominica as a category 5. Sharita Turner was just starting medical school when the hurricane hit Sept. 19. Courtesy of Sharita Turner

Sharita Turner spent the days around her 25th birthday Sept. 20 out of reach of her family, but grateful for the gift granted — her life.

The first-year medical student at Ross University School of Medicine, a Superior High School graduate who earned a degree in chemistry at Prairie View A&M in Texas, had cause for concern.

The student who just started medical school two weeks earlier, found herself in the path of a category 5 hurricane as Maria swept over the Caribbean island of Dominica.

"I just want people to know about Dominica," Sharita Turner said. "I know people know about Puerto Rico. They got hit with a category 4 after us, but I don't think people realize what happened to the island of Dominica. They need help.

"A lot happened in a short amount of time."

Before the storm

Sharita said students got their first warning the storm could be headed their way Sept. 16, a Saturday, in an email. She said then-tropical storm Maria was about 545 miles away and the wind speed was about 50 mph.

"Campus wasn't closed yet," she said, scrolling through the email on her phone to get the correct dates and times of notifications. "Then the next day it said there was a hurricane watch for Dominica; I believe she was only a 1 or 2 at the time."

A category 1 has sustained winds of 74-95 mph, and a category 2 has wind speeds of 96-110 mph on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sustained winds for a category five are 157 mph or greater.

Then, around 9:40 p.m. Sept. 17, students were notified classes would be canceled the following day.

"We actually had a big exam the following day, so I was studying with my roommate at the time, so we really didn't have time to go get food or water, or anything," Sharita said.

She said it had started raining, and she and her roommate took a study break to get some food. They headed to a friend's house, which was in a low-lying area likely to be hard hit by rough seas, and packed up the friend to come back to their apartment.

Category 5

"The next day, we didn't have much food so we went back to her house," Sharita said of her friend, Katie. "I was Facetiming my Mom, and I know it was the last time I talked to her for nearly a week."

She said they lost the internet on the island, cutting the chat short.

Back home, in Billings Park, Sharita's mother, Lori Turner, turned to Facebook, the university's website and a hotline for any news on her daughter.

"I know my daughter is very strong. I know she is very smart, but when it comes to something like that, you just don't know what can happen," Lori said. "And the not hearing was just horrible — couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, couldn't function — just did a lot of praying."

On the island, Sharita, her roommate and friend went to get food from Katie's house.

"So we packed all the food (into a suitcase) and proceeded to walk from the house," Sharita said. "As we were walking, it got super windy. We saw trees falling. We saw power lines falling. And I was like 'oh my God, we're going to die.' It was literally like playing Frogger with your life."

At one point they found shelter behind a concrete wall with only the suitcase to offer a little more protection for the three, she said. When the winds slowed just a bit, she said they made a run for it to get back to her apartment.

Riding it out

It was after they got to the apartment that everything started happening, Sharita said. The wind tore up the screen door and minutes later the gazebo was gone. She said the ceiling started to fill with water and the walls started to collapse.

"We put the dry erase board in the window so if something hit the window, the glass wouldn't shatter and hit us," she said. A powerline whipped at a window, raising the fear of electrocution.

During the storm, they tried to study but couldn't concentrate, she said, so they played games to pass the time and calm nerves.

When her bedroom started to flood, they moved the bed and belongings to the kitchen, she said.

"We worked as a team; I think that prevented a lot of damage," Sharita said. She said when they realized the bathroom in their apartment would cave in, they warned the neighbors on the second floor about what was happening down below.

"I don't think we slept actually," she said.

Lori said she heard the winds had reached 175 mph on the island, wind speeds confirmed by CNN reports.

After the storm

In the early morning hours of Sept. 19 — a Tuesday — it was still drizzling as the friends ventured out to see and shoot video of the destruction with their phones.

Sharita said they saw the devastation walking to campus, roofs and power poles everywhere, destroyed buildings and homes, and people outside cleaning up debris from the storm.

"That was really hard for me to see," Sharita said. "I'm new, and I felt really guilty, but I knew we were going to be evacuated. I felt bad for the Dominican people ... Where are they going to go? They lost their homes. They lost family members. How are they going to rebuild?"

According to the Associated Press, 27 people were killed in Dominica as a result of Hurricane Maria.

The United Nation's humanitarian office has launched an appeal for $31 million in emergency aid for Dominica after the island was left in tatters, the Associated Press reported.

As of Friday, Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said recovery efforts are underway, but said even he is sleeping on a floor and bathing with a bucket of water at this point.

"This country has been devastated," Skerrit said during his daily briefing Friday.

Evacuation

Sharita said she was initially supposed to evacuate Sept. 22. During the evacuation, she said she could only take a 10-pound backpack and 40-pound suitcase with her.

"I moved my entire life there; Dominica was my newly found home," she said, so she donated all her clothes, shoes. And the day she was supposed to leave, she said she gave all of her food and money to her friend Mac Mayer.

The cruise ship she would leave on came from the Ukraine and traveled to Trinidad and St. Lucia, and didn't show up for two days.

"I had given away all my food but I had water, so that was good ... I remember being hungry, but that was OK," she said.

On the 23rd, Sharita said, students were escorted to the docks again, but learned the cruise ship hadn't left St. Lucia, 10-12 hours away.

Homecoming

On the 24th, the students were loaded 25 at a time — 350 in total — over 4 hours before setting sail for St. Lucia. On the ship, Sharita said they were able to eat and had a bed to sleep. From St. Lucia she caught a flight to Miami, then Chicago, then to Duluth, where she was reunited with her parents two days later.

The last of the 1,300 American students were evacuated by late last week, according to ABC News.

"I just want to hold her and never let her go," Lori said. "But I have to; I also want her to be a doctor. I want her to succeed because that's her passion. God spared her life because he knows she's going to do good things and help people."

Sharita said she expects to return to her medical studies when Ross University relocates students. She said the Dominica campus was devastated.

Sharita said it is unfortunate that so much damage was done to the small Caribbean island, and she's heartbroken so many lost their lives as a result of the storm. However, for physicians in training, she said it was a lesson in compassion.

"As future physicians, what we realized is that we're going to meet people from all walks of life, people who are poor, who don't have food, water, and as physicians we need to have compassion ... now we do," Sharita said "We shared food. We shared water. We kept each other safe. That was beautiful."

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