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Former Alexandria couple rides out Hurricane Irma on Caribbean island of St. Martin

An aerial view of the houses destroyed by Irma during the visit of France's President Emmanuel Macron to the French Caribbean island of St. Martin Sept. 12, 2017. REUTERS/Christophe Ena/Pool/File Photo1 / 6
Alexandria, Minn., native David Townsend and his wife, Kerri, and two sons, Boden and Luke, were living in St. Martin when Hurricane Irma hit. It destroyed 85 percent of the island. (Contributed)2 / 6
David Townsend surveys the damage in the area of Beacon Hill, where he and his family lived until five days before Hurricane Irma hit. (Contributed)3 / 6
Some roads, including those in the Townsends' neighborhood, were flooded with up to 4 feet of water. (Contributed)4 / 6
Just four days before the hurricane hit, the Townsends moved from this location, which was destroyed. (Contributed)5 / 6
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ST. MARTIN — David Townsend stood on the back of a battered pickup truck on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, watching as a U.S. Air Force plane took off with his wife, Kerri, and two sons, Boden and Luke, on board. He didn't know when he would see them again.

Townsend's family was evacuated in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which hit St. Martin on Sept. 6, destroying 85 percent of structures on the island about 230 miles east of Puerto Rico. Townsend, an Alexandria, Minn., native, moved to St. Martin with his family a year ago so he could attend medical school at the American University of the Caribbean.

When Irma hit, he still had one more year of school to finish. Now, he and his family will likely never return to the 34-square-mile island they called home.

Preparing for Irma

The Townsends hurricane preparations around Aug. 28, more than a week before Irma was predicted to make landfall. They gathered 35 gallons of bottled water, canned food, paper products, flashlights, batteries, candles, 8 gallons of extra diesel for a generator, toddler formula, diapers and more. They also filled various containers and a kiddie pool with water, as they were told the water would be turned off the day the storm hit.

Windows in their apartment were taped to help prevent the glass shattering. The Townsends also replaced the battery on their Land Rover, anticipating needing to drive it through flooded roads after the storm.

Irma packed sustained winds of 195 mph and gusts up to 260 mph when it finally hit.

"The trunks of trees snapped like they were toothpicks," Townsend said. "Watching that happen live is an unbelievable experience."

The family rode out the storm in their apartment, which they had moved into four days before the storm. Townsend said this was divine intervention because their new building was much better-constructed to withstand a hurricane than their previous one.

"We hunkered down for about 14 hours," Townsend said. "As the eye of the storm passed over, people started coming out of buildings. Some neighbors of ours looked absolutely frightened, so we invited them into our apartment."

The aftermath

As the storm passed, the Townsends began to asses the damage. Sadly, Townsend says, it was every bit as bad as anticipated.

"It was like we got hit by a nuclear bomb," he said.

The family's previous home was destroyed, as were many of the buildings surrounding them.

"I'm not talking like just the roof flew off," Townsend said. "The entire structure was completely devastated."

At one point, Townsend came across three puppies and a mother dog in a flooded street. The dogs all survived and were later taken to a shelter.

"The animals are something a lot of people don't consider (during a hurricane)," he said. "The dogs had been out there for 36 to 48 hours. They were dehydrated, and two of the puppies were barely keeping their snouts above water to survive ... I made a floating raft to bring them back to the building."

The day after the storm hit, Townsend and his family packed a few bags and loaded into their vehicle, driving a few miles through 4 feet of water and debris to reach the university.

"Since no one could get to us in our neighborhood, we had been considered missing for two days," he recalled. " I don't think I've ever received as many hugs as I got when we all got to campus."

The family spent two nights there. They were abruptly woken the morning of Saturday, Sept. 9, and told it was time to evacuate.

"There were U.S. Air Force aircrafts evacuating people off the island," Townsend said. "But it was a mother and children transport only aircraft, so they went ahead of me."

Townsend remained on the island for another two days, during which he assisted with medical triage and transportation. He also lined up security for the campus, as violence and looting had broken out across much of the island.

The island's prison was damaged in the hurricane. "Every single prisoner escaped," he said. "There was a lot of widespread gang activity. ... We had threats on campus, and people driving by in the back of pickups with firearms. You see those images on the news. ... That's what we saw. It's unbelievable to think, 'This is actually happening to me.' "

Townsend was among the last of the American University of the Caribbean students to evacuate, leaving the island on Monday, Sept. 11, and flying to San Juan, Puerto Rico. From there, he flew to Chicago and was eventually reunited with his family.

Meanwhile, the Caribbean was being hit again this week, this time by Hurricane Marie.

Rebuilding a life

The Townsends remain in Chicago, where DeVry University, which owns the university, is based. At the end of September they will move to England, where the medical school is being relocated.

Many of the Townsends' assets remain in St. Martin, but Townsend said they likely won't return for them.

"I wouldn't chance it right now with the violence and looting and disruption," he said. "There's no way I'd bring my family back there given that there's lack of water, lack of electricity, and a mob scene going on there. People are desperate for the ability to survive."

The family even gave away their two vehicles and motorcycle to families on the island who weren't able to evacuate.

Townsend said that the role of the U.S. Air Force and military was vital in reaching safety.

"They were nothing but amazing in all of this," he said. "These guys are trained and they are battle-hardened and this stuff doesn't faze them."

Though parts of the island were in turmoil, the experience also brought out the best in people, Townsend said.

"What surprised me so much was just the ability of the people," he said. "You had no idea who they were, but these people stepped up in times of disaster and trial to make a difference. So many people stepped up and did what needed to be done without being asked because they saw a need."

How to help

If desiring to aid in the rebuilding of the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine, donations can be made at www.aucassistancefund.com.

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