The Caribbean had solid surf earlier in the season, but it didn’t hold a candle to this. With the trade winds down, cerulean glass met focused power radiating from Hurricane Irma toward Puerto Rico in 16-second intervals. For San Juan-based surfer Otto Flores, this was as good as it gets: late drops into dreamy, overhead caverns.
“It was like a year’s worth of great waves in a day,” Flores remembers. “When hurricane swells come from that direction, there isn’t a drop of water out of place.”
For many who live and die by Atlantic-borne swells, hurricane season is a celebration. But while a given storm system may seem like a gift for one coastal resident, it’s often a curse for another.
After his Hurricane Irma super sessions, Flores learned that the spinner that created perfect waves in Puerto Rico had all but leveled neighboring islands. Wanting to help in the recovery effort, Flores jetted to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands to meet with Jon Rose, founder of the humanitarian organization Waves For Water, who was already on the ground distributing water filters to the locals.
“To see these beautiful paradises after they’ve been hit by a Category 5 was really shocking,” says Flores. “A lot of the buildings aren’t concrete; they’re just island style. There were boats in the streets and cars flipped over. What was miraculous to me was that more people didn’t die.”
In the midst of his post-Irma effort, yet another meteorological menace came banging at the door. On September 16, Hurricane Maria became a tropical storm just east of the Lesser Antilles before entering a period of rapid intensification. Within two days it would become a Category 5, and by September 20, it would peak with wind speeds of 175 mph, making it the tenth-most intense hurricane on record.
Commercial airlines were grounded in preparation for Maria, but Flores felt he needed to make sure his wife and two children were safe before the hurricane made landfall, so he called in a favor from a well connected friend on the mainland and got on a last-minute flight back to Puerto Rico. When Maria arrived, Flores and his family rode out the worst storm to hit the island in 100 years. They secured themselves
in a hotel with hurricane-proof windows and watched as their world was ravaged. The damage was grave. In the aftermath, Flores put his wife and children on a flight to her native Canada while he got to work picking up the pieces.
Thirty-five days after Maria beat the enchantment out of La Isla del Encanto, Flores and I find shade beside a rusted-out junker, where he and the Waves For Water crew are speaking with the locals. They explain to Billy Joe, a street artist and community activist, how to use a Sawyer filter and bucket to turn the compromised city water or natural springs (both possibly contaminated by dead animals or feces) into potable water. Since Maria first made landfall in Puerto Rico, perhaps the most immediate problem has been the shortage of clean drinking water on the island. Bacteria, specifically leptospirosis, has sent 76 people to the hospital and claimed three lives since the hurricane at the time of reporting.
Life is slow in this district of Aguadilla, a short drive from where the Rip Curl Search event was held at Middles in 2010, even when the community hasn’t been recently lashed by a storm. Now, things move at an
even slower pace as much infrastructure has yet to be repaired. Puerto Rico is entering the long haul of disaster aftermath. Most national media outlets have turned their cameras elsewhere at this point, and ourpaper towel-throwing President has long since left on Air Force One.
The initial chaos and response has morphed into the much longer and exhausting clean-up stage. The National Guard, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and even a group of Massachusetts state troopers have been deployed to help in the effort.
The word “devastation” has lost some of its potency after the 2017 hurricane season. At the time of writing, the city of San Juan still limps along among the din of countless diesel generators. Carlos Cabreo’s Tres Palmas Surf Shop is still boarded up after being flooded and looted. You can find tulip-glass rum drinks by a hotel pool, but massive concrete light poles lay on sidewalks–the measure of progress is that they’re no longer in the street.
“Even with everything I’ve seen, there are still times where I’m taken aback,” says Flores. “I saw some really sad stuff the other day in Humacao, on the southeast side of the island. The river had come up from behind the town and the ocean came in from the front. This black water just flooded through the town, and it’s still there. Everything is just stinky and moldy and horrible. They’ve gotten a lot of help, but things are still looking pretty bad.”
Driving around Puerto Rico, we gaze at the countryside spotted with blue FEMA tarps replacing the cheap corrugated metal roofs that became sailing projectiles during Maria. Homes have slid into valleys. Fallen cieba trees lie on houses, with their massive roots exposed on the side of the road.
The Caribbean is the first place many people think of when it comes to the unfortunate pairing of perfect surf and widespread destruction, but all along the Eastern Seaboard, the Gulf Coast and beyond, swell often comes at a price. If you were born and raised in Southern California, it might be hard to comprehend, but much of the surfing world faces blizzards, floods, erosion, or hurricanes in the wake of bountiful waves.
“After getting weeks of waves, there was an evacuation issued for Maria,” says North Carolina’s Brett Barley, a pro surfer who has seen plenty of destruction along his home coast from supercharged storms. “But we dodged a bullet this time. For once, we didn’t wear a hurricane on the head. Instead, it gave us the most flawless Lighthouse session. It was head high, but scary heavy. I got a quadruple barrel. To not get hit by any storms for the first time in a while and then wrap it up with firing waves at home was something else.”
Sometimes these storms turn out to be little more than a nuisance for local residents. Other times they erase entire communities. But in recent years, the same storms that deliver perfect waves have also increasingly delivered fatal catastrophes, with 2017 landing atop a short list of historically hyperactive seasons in the Atlantic.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the calculated Accumulated Cyclonic Energy (the total sum of each tropical system’s strength and duration within the season) ranked 2017 as the most ferocious in the last 12 years–a period of already heightened activity. By late October, the Atlantic had spawned 16 named storms, ten of them hurricanes, two of which were roaring Category 5s, with Irma ringing the bell as the strongest storm ever recorded in the open Atlantic. And the calling card for Atlantic storms in 2017 was rapid intensification, exploding from Category 1s to vicious Category 4s in a day.
On the bright side, this pattern created the most memorable East Coast season in years in terms of surf. Instead of brief wind swells with two days of ragged onshores, a one get-it-while-you-can session, then going back to flat, back-to-back hurricanes offered months of nearly nonstop surf. From mid-August through October, what happened on the East Coast was without precedent.
It began in August with Hurricane Gert, followed by Tropical Cyclone 10. Then came the heavy hitters: Irma, Jose and Maria. At one point, there were three giant atmospheric gears grinding the Atlantic at once. Most years it would be unheard of for Californians to fly east to meet swell. This year, West Coast pros flew out en masse.
“It was the best August we’ve had in years,” says Barley. “And at the end of that post-tropical low, we were looking at Irma and the long-range models were pumping out one storm after another. It was a perfect scenario for long-period swell and good winds for a pointbreak-style set up on Shelly Island. The Jose swell started to show up with three fun days and then it started pumping. The swells started overlapping and spots were empty because guys were surfed out or they had to work. I passed up a few days of the Maria swell because I was whooped and wanted to spend time with my family.”
On the other side of the hurricane coin, the same storms that brought waves to life on the East Coast battered the Caribbean and beyond, destroying property, ravaging infrastructure and taking human life, with the death toll from the 2017 hurricane season reaching 464.
Last year was the first time three Category 4-or-higher storms had ever made landfall in the mainland U.S. and its territories in a single season. In addition to the weeklong deluge in Houston, Hurricane Harvey also ravaged many more Texan coastal communities. Irma nearly erased the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. John and St. Thomas before it gave Florida a thorough beating. The entire population of Barbuda has been evacuated indefinitely. Maria left 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million people without grid power into November/ Dominica has been deemed uninhabitable, with Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit telling the UN, “The stars have fallen. Eden is broken.”
All told, the National Hurricane Center estimates that the 2017 hurricane season caused roughly $316 billion in damage. And that’s not accounting for the economic blow to future tourism in these mostly coastal areas.
In the aftermath of all this disaster, the questions lingering in countless hurricane victims’ minds are: why was this year’s hurricane season so destructive, and are we likely to see this happen again?
“Strong hurricanes are tending to be a little bit stronger. Not all countries will be able to make adaptations and in the developed world, we may not be able to prepare for more intense storms,” explains Wunderground Meteorologist, Bob Henson, a member of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and author of “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change and Meteorology Today.” “It’s hard to physically see it. You can’t expect climate change to make every year like this one. There are going to be quiet tropical seasons in the 2020s, 2040s and 2060s. Not every hurricane is intensifying more because of climate change. It’s certainly possible to over-dramatize aspects of it. But, globally, it will have effects that we haven’t even considered.”
Every year, Atlantic hurricane season starts in June when sea surface temperatures significantly increase, and the season continues through November, typically spiking with the most violent storms in August and September. With warmer sea surface temperatures, hot, moist air rises, leaving a pocket of low pressure below that cooler air rushes toward. Warmer water essentially acts as hurricane fuel, creating stronger storms and greater potential for both surf and destruction.
The earth’s temperature has risen over 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since scientists started recording global temperature in the 1880s, and that’s translating to warmer oceans. It may not sound like much, but NOAA is already reporting heat waves, droughts, heavy rain events, and even hurricanes becoming more extreme.
“Even a one or two-degree Fahrenheit change overall is going to make a radical difference,” says Henson. “There may be enough variability now to mask the trend. But eventually the long-term trend is going to hit a point where more seasons are pushing the envelope on the warmer side.”
For surfers who live in communities frequently affected by hurricanes, the risk of supercharged storms impacting their lives isn’t an abstract notion. Many believe that they’re already seeing the effects firsthand.
“When I was surfing professionally, hurricanes just meant ‘Where are we going to surf?'” says Floridian former World Tour surfer Gabe Kling. “But I feel like the storms are changing now. Maybe it’s that I own a home and am part of a community that I don’t want to see get wrecked, but even the younger guys are seeing it differently. There’s more destruction. I don’t ever remember a time where there were multiple states declaring a disaster at a time. One hurricane flooded Houston and a week later another one destroyed the Caribbean and then hit Florida and the Southeast. And right behind it was another hurricane. That’s like nothing I can remember. I’m hoping it was just a crazy year, but in the last five years it’s gotten more frequent.”
Up and down the East Coast, surfers have become all too familiar with the destruction that often follows swell-producing hurricanes, and they’re increasingly involved in the relief efforts once the surf has long passed. Brett Barley and his Outer Banks cohorts have driven their trucks straight from an epic session over to a friend’s damaged home to start pulling up soaked carpets. Since Superstorm Sandy, a new generation of surfers have stepped up to lead local efforts to rebuild coastal communities in New York and New Jersey.
Waves For Water is another example of surfers taking action to help coastal communities in need. The Caribbean Hurricane Initiative employed the same tactics that Jon Rose and co. have used to provide clean drinking water in dozens of other locales, tapping into a network of local surfers to help provide the broader community with clean drinking water. Under Field Operations Director Rob McQueen, the Caribbean effort was spearheaded by Flores, North Carolina surfer Ben Bourgeois, native Puerto Rican Dylan Graves and photographer Ethan Lovell. Peruvian surfer Gabriel Villarán, who had worked with Rose in Peru following his country’s devastating floods earlier in 2017, joined the crew to spread the knowledge he’d gained on his home coast. They teamed up with Puerto Rican activists Jorge Quintana and Jose Perez, who have been running on all cylinders since Maria hit the island on September 20.
The “guerilla humanitarianism” approach, as Rose calls it, has been a massive help in trying to solve the water crisis of the Caribbean. There’s no lack of water, so Waves For Water is simply making the available water drinkable.
Armed with little more than water filters, pocketknives and social media contacts, the volunteer surfers use their networks for “collecting intel,” “establishing comms,” and “running ops,” as if they’re part of a military unit, and they’ve been extremely effective at both getting filters to people in need, and raising the necessary funds to continue the relief efforts (at the time of writing, Waves For Water’s Caribbean fundraising campaign is nearing $500,000 in donations).
Each morning with the Waves For Water crew in Puerto Rico, we launch from San Juan to meet a contact in a place like Guayama on the south coast, where the Caribbean Sea simply swallowed the beachfront village, bending metal guardrails like paper clips and turning the once-idyllic sandy cove into a landfill. After a filter demonstration, the crew sets up a cistern with the capacity to filter 1,800 gallons a day.
We drive to the mountain town of Corozal where the grade school has become a relief center for thousands of families, after a young teacher named Enid Santiago contacted Quintana to report that 15 children visited the local pediatrician with stomach issues. Santiago and the principal were planning to restart class in a week, almost certainly without power. The Waves For Water team teaches a group at the school how to use the filters in their homes and distribute clean water to their neighbors. Quintan and Perez also build a PVC diverter
for the filters to clean collected rainwater.
Every wave-rich corner of the island has been affected by the onslaught of hurricanes, including the Northwest Coast, which is known for winter swells that funnel in from the 1,500-foot deep Mona Passage. In Isabella, pro surfer Brian Toth is driving a truck for FEMA and his mother has turned her veterinarian office near Jobos into a support center. The surf/party town of Rincon, where hundreds of surfers from the East Coast head each winter, has been devastated.
Once gorgeous beachfront guesthouses in Córcega are literally crumbling into the sea. But in the plaza, Rincon Beer Company is a hive of activity, channeling resources to the locals and organizing everything from beach clean-ups to counseling. It will take a long time before life regains any semblance of normalcy, but across the entire island, Puerto Ricans are determined to rise up from the tragic events of hurricane season.
“As a father, son, husband and now a community leader on the front lines after these disasters, I see hurricanes much differently than I did when I was younger,” says Flores. “I just wanted to surf, but when you become this person who other people look to for answers, it all becomes more complicated.”
Though the exterior is trashed, Flores’ home is still habitable. He feels fortunate. He sits alone in his kitchen, which is normally brimming with the activity and curiosity of two children. With his family still in Canada some 3,500 miles away, he considers the future.
“When you buy your house, maybe you look at your neighborhood and think, ‘This will never flood.’ Now I can’t say that my house would never flood, or get hit by a huge projectile, or be compromised. With the storms becoming as powerful as they are–and I think we will face more powerful storms–moving to Canada might be in the cards for my family and I. But if I left, I’d always come back to help, no ifs, ands or buts.”
If the organization of relief efforts that followed Hurricane Maria was any indication, Flores and co. know how to galvanize local surfers to come together, take action and help those in need in their communities. But Flores–like many surfers in the Caribbean, on the East Coast and beyond–fears that there’s only so much that he and his friends can do on the local level to fight what is actually a global problem. You can stop the spread of water-borne diseases by distributing water filters in a community, but stopping climate change and its effect on storm generation is decidedly more complicated.