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Before Sept. 18, Kris Grybow could barely see across the street of his apartment on the island nation of Dominica. The lush foliage and palm trees of the near rain forest climate was so dense, it blocked his view.

Twenty-four hours, however, would make a difference for Grybow, a Chesterton native, Valparaiso resident, registered nurse at Porter Regional Hospital and medical student at Ross University of Medicine on the island.

Hurricane Maria, which swept across the island with 175 mph winds, stripped the green from the trees, leaving them stand, said Grybow, like toothpicks.

"The bark was ripped off the trees. The leaves were ripped off. I could see six to seven kilometers, all the way to the city of Portsmouth," Grybow, 29, recalled of the harrowing experience that left at least 27 dead on the island.

Grybow began his classes at the island university in January. He returns home to Valparaiso every three months or so to pick up a nursing shift or two and visit his family.

While he's used to seeing the devastation tornadoes leave in their wake across the Midwest from news broadcasts, he said, he wasn't prepared for Maria.

"It was like the devastation you would see from a tornado, but it was everywhere," he said. Power lines were downed. Roofs ripped from most buildings. Flooding washed in and out of homes and businesses.

Grybow also works at a clinic at the university. When they received word Hurricane Irma might strike the island, clinic workers put together an emergency response team. Dominica, thankfully, was spared from Irma.

The morning of Sept. 18, the emergency response team began setting up a triage clinic. It was breezy, he recalled.

Instead of hunkering down in his apartment, he chose to seek refuge at a Category 3-rated building on campus. It was a smart choice; the roof of his apartment was ripped off from the storm's winds. While most of the buildings are made of cinder block, their roofs are wood and tin.

Maria struck about 11 p.m. on Sept. 18.

"Around 2:30 a.m., it was calm enough for us to venture out. It was one of the first times the island was dark for me. We just went out and walked around, calling for people to see if they needed help," he said, adding their focus was on helping any university students that might be in need. Luckily, there weren't many.

For the next few days, as other non-islanders were airlifted off the island by the U.S. military, he and his team stayed. They treated people for emergency-related injuries ranging from punctures to cuts, dehydration to stress-related illnesses.

The most difficult time came when cell service was cut off.

"I was in the military for 11 years, and my wife knows a hurricane won't beat me up," he said. Three days after the storm, he found a satellite phone to call home and assure his family he was OK.

Grybow and his team stayed on the island for 10 days after the storm. He left the island on a "very, very small" cruise ship, the last evacuation boat to leave. The ship sailed to St. Lucia, where he caught a flight to Miami and then home.

"Our clinic doctors were still there. I'd love to be there to help out. There was so much devastation. I was happy to be off, but it is bittersweet because I wanted to stay and help."

Grybow still isn't sure when or how he will continue his medical education. The power grid could be down for a couple of months. It could be a semester or two before he's able to return to classes, and it likely won't be back in Dominica.

"I definitely respect hurricanes more. Wherever they send me, medicine is a true calling for me," he said.


Porter County reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for more than 38 years, including 23 years with The Times. She covers municipal and school government in Valparaiso and Portage.