GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Thursday morning Andrew Droste hugged his mother and family at the Grand Rapids airport after three days of travel.
Ten days ago the 24-year-old survived Category 5 Hurricane Maria after it hit his new home, the small Caribbean island of Dominica, southeast of the Virgin Islands. He started studying at Ross University School of Medicine one month ago.
"I knew I had to get out; they were survival instincts," said Droste, describing when the storm hit last Monday.
He was studying for his first significant med school exam with colleagues when he says no one expected Maria to hit as a Category 5.
"The storm intensified so fast, so rapidly that you couldn’t prepare for it," said Droste.
"The next thing you know, I was behind my mattress in my room, with three to six inches of water, the windows blew out."
Then he escaped between neighboring apartments.
"I ran upstairs and there was a kid whose apartment was just as bad as mine. I never met him, but we became best friends real quick," said Droste.
"I noticed the water in the ceiling, I said, ‘Hey we got to get out of here, your ceiling’s going to collapse.’ And within five minutes it was gone."
Once a lush island, its population less than 75,000, Maria devastated Dominica.
"The water and everything is going to run out, there's no gas on the island, it's truly a war zone," said Droste.
Droste says he was among 1,600 students and residents sleeping outdoors on cement, sharing food, with no running water or soap and "infections spreading like wildfire" for a week. After the storm hit, he was unable to initially call family until four days later. Monday he began his trek home with the help of the U.S. military and a 12-hour boat ride south to St. Lucia.
"We were able to escape with what little we have, but the people of Dominica, they can’t just go to the mall and stuff," said Droste. "They don’t have supplies, they don’t have money, it’s a third-world country."
While conditions remain unsafe on Dominica, Droste says he and fellow students will return to give aid when possible. Within the next two weeks he'll learn where he will continue medical school.
"These are experiences that are going to make us ultimately better doctors," he said.
"If we can overcome something like this, there's no doubt that when we're out there seeing patients we can overcome whatever we're faced with."