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From a disaster zone to preparing for one

Ryan Franz has a new appreciation for the importance of mock disaster drills. Two weeks ago, the medical school student sat huddled in a closet on the island of Dominica as Hurricane Maria tore through the Caribbean.

Ryan Franz has a new appreciation for the importance of mock disaster drills.

Two weeks ago, the medical school student sat huddled in a closet on the island of Dominica as Hurricane Maria tore through the Caribbean. The category 5 storm ripped roofs off buildings and snapped trees. More than two dozen people on the island died in the wake of the storm.

Franz evacuated the island, returning to his hometown of Rochester. On Sunday, he joined hundreds of people at a mock disaster drill at Gamehaven Scout Reservation. And while there are certainly key differences between this mock drill focused on a zombie apocalypse and a devastating hurricane, Franz said the key lesson about teamwork in the midst of a disaster rings true.

"It is really spot on what we do here," he said.

In fact, it is his past experience attending the annual "Bounce Day" event that helped Franz cope as the hurricane bore down on the island of 72,000. His father — Mayo Clinic Dr. Walter Franz — helps run the disaster simulation. So what was it like as a father to have his son in the midst of a natural disaster?


"I knew Ryan had been an EMT. I knew he had been to a lot of these (disaster simulations), and he's a very sober guy. So I knew he'd be taking care of himself and also he'd be helping someone else," the elder Franz said.

'It's here'

For more than a year, Ryan Franz had been attending medical school at Ross University in Dominica. Initial forecasts predicted that Maria would be a tropical storm or category 1 hurricane when it made landfall on the island. But all that changed within hours as the storm picked up strength, turning into a category 5 hurricane with winds of 160 miles per hour.

Sitting in his ground floor apartment, the 33-year-old remembers the exact moment he realized this storm was far worse than expected.

"I heard cracking, and that was trees coming down and buildings being ripped," he said.

His neighbor — a fellow university student — sent him a text message telling him to come over. She had outfitted her closet with blankets and candles. Before he ran next door, he sent his parents in Rochester a text message — "It's here." It was the last message they'd get from their son for days.

For four hours, the Minnesotan and his neighbor stayed in the closet. Heavy winds flung the closet door open a couple of times. The two would fight to get the door closed again.

Once the wind subsided, the Rochester native emerged to find all of his apartment's windows shattered. But he was lucky. He still had a roof over his head. It wasn't until the next morning that he saw the true extent of the damage. Many of the island's wood-framed homes were destroyed. Flood waters filled the streets.


Ross University had instructed students that if the storm became severe and communication lines were knocked down, to report to the school. He made his way to the school with his neighbor. After a few days of waiting, he was among 1,300 students and faculty members evacuated from the island.

A real-world lesson

Reflecting on what happened, Franz's father said his son's experience in Dominica highlights some key lessons. For starters, it is important to realize that government assistance might not come right away. That's why it is so important for people to take care of each other when disaster strikes.

"Neighbors helping neighbors is the key," the Mayo Clinic doctor said.

During Sunday's Bounce Day event, healthcare professionals, students, scouts and military members all took part in the daylong disaster exercise. Victim volunteers wandered around with bloody wounds, screaming and moaning as they were taken to a makeshift hospital. The Rochester Police Department had its drone on hand to help locate victims.

The goal of Bounce Day is to make sure Rochester can bounce back quickly from a disaster.

Byron Callies, who oversees emergency response for Mayo Clinic, said these exercises are critical. Roughly 95 percent of all disaster victims are rescued by other victims — not disaster agencies. This event helps get the broader community involved in preparing for the unexpected.

"It's just a great opportunity to build relationships," he said.


A future in emergency medicine

For now, Ryan Franz is waiting to find out where he will finish his medical school training. Ross University won't be able to resume classes this fall. The school is busy trying to find somewhere else it can place its students.

The hurricane did help the younger Franz decide what type of medicine he wants to practice. Initially, he wanted to be a family medicine doctor. Now he wants to be an emergency room physician.

He added, "I think it's just a good fit now."

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