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Af­ter a String of Dev­as­tat­ing Hur­ri­canes, Coastal Com­mu­ni­ties Pick Up the Pieces

SUP Magazine - - Contents - JACK HA­WORTH

On a Septem­ber day in 2017, Rico Tor­res was herd­ing cat­tle in Bra­zo­ria County, Texas.

It’s a com­mon ac­tiv­ity in the cat­tle-dense Hous­ton area, ex­cept on this par­tic­u­lar oc­ca­sion the cir­cum­stances were un­usual; Tor­res was di­rect­ing the be­lea­guered live­stock to higher ground not from a horse, but a pad­dle­board.

“I’ll be hon­est, that's the first time I’ve ever had to herd cat­tle be­fore,” said Tor­res, the man­ager of Bayou City Ad­ven­tures. “I have no idea why it worked, it just did.”

Days ear­lier, the Hous­ton area was bat­tered by Hur­ri­cane Harvey and a non-stop del­uge de­liv­er­ing more than four feet of rain. Flood­wa­ters rose, streets turned to rivers and en­tire neigh­bor­hoods dis­ap­peared be­neath the murky wa­ter. With his fel­low Hous­to­ni­ans in need, Tor­res jumped to ac­tion.

“At first, po­lice didn’t want us to use pad­dle­boards,” said Tor­res. “But once the wa­ter got too high, the men­tal­ity shifted to [using] any­thing that floated to get peo­ple out.”

Tor­res spent the next two weeks pad­dling door-to-door in sev­eral neigh­bor­hoods, res­cu­ing chil­dren and pets via SUP while adults evac­u­ated in kayaks. While un­con­ven­tional, the ma­neu­ver­abil­ity of the pad­dle­board al­lowed Tor­res to reach smaller ar­eas that boats could not. Be­fore long, a po­lice of­fi­cer was pad­dling along­side him on an­other bor­rowed board.

Then, as Hous­ton still reeled from the ef­fects of Harvey’s bru­tal in­va­sion, the news shifted fo­cus to a new mon­ster de­vel­op­ing in Hur­ri­cane Al­ley. Its name was Irma.

Af­ter spend­ing more than a week tear­ing through the Caribbean Is­land chain with wind speeds reach­ing 185 miles per hour, Irma headed for Florida. Look­ing straight down the bar­rel was Sue Cooper, owner of Lazy Dog, the pop­u­lar pad­dle rental shop that has been a Key West sta­ple for 20 years.

“This is my is­land,” said Cooper. “It’s where my liveli­hood is and I felt I would be of great help get­ting things back to­gether quickly if I stayed.”

Af­ter two decades, Cooper is no stranger to Florida's storms. But as the warn­ings and fore­cast be­came more omi­nous in the hours lead­ing up to land­fall, Irma felt dif­fer­ent.

“Most peo­ple don’t have to go through that de­ci­sion in life; ‘What do I save?’” said Cooper. “You look around and re­al­ize not much is im­por­tant ex­cept for you and your loved ones.”

Twelve fright­en­ing hours later, Irma passed and the ma­jor­ity of Key West was spared. But with most res­i­dents and her em­ploy­ees evac­u­ated for nearly two weeks, Cooper was left to clean up the mess.

Thank­fully, flood dam­age to her shop was lim­ited and af­ter some hard work, it was back up and run­ning. While tourism has taken a while to re­bound, the tight-knit south Florida SUP com­mu­nity ral­lied to­gether to help.

“So many peo­ple were putting to­gether races, rais­ing money and just ask­ing what they could do to help,” said Cooper. “The SUP com­mu­nity has been so sup­port­ive of us down here.”

Un­for­tu­nately, not ev­ery SUP com­mu­nity bounced back so quickly from this year’s slew of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters. On the heels of Irma came Hur­ri­cane Maria—a fu­ri­ous storm that ex­ploded from a trop­i­cal storm to Cat­e­gory 5 hur­ri­cane in only two days. Puerto Rico was right in its path.

Al­bert Lash is a lo­cal of the quin­tes­sen­tial Puerto Ri­can surf town of Rincón, where he owns and op­er­ates three beach­side shacks that rent SUPS. The town has a ro­bust pad­dling scene and even won the SUP Mag­a­zine “Pad­dle Town Bat­tle” in 2014. The idyl­lic des­ti­na­tion was about to be turned on its head.

“I’ve never seen some­thing like this,” said Lash. “I’m a wa­ter per­son and go out when the waves are big, but this was un­be­liev­ably scary.”

But the night­mare was just be­gin­ning. Over the next two months, res­i­dents would have to re­build with­out the ne­ces­si­ties most of us take for granted: elec­tric­ity, wa­ter and food.

“I never felt any fear un­til about three or four weeks af­ter the hur- ri­cane be­cause we didn’t have wa­ter and had no way to get any,” said Aguadilla res­i­dent Kari Di­palma. “We were col­lect­ing wa­ter from drain pipes.”

With lit­tle out­side sup­port, Puerto Ri­cans joined to­gether. Neigh­bors helped one an­other clear trees, re­build houses and sim­ply sur­vive. While the phys­i­cal cost can be quan­ti­fied, the men­tal toll can­not.

“If there are pad­dlers who want to help, get to know some­one down here lo­cally,” said San Juan res­i­dent Pablo Cabral. “It would be in­cred­i­bly valu­able if pad­dlers came down with in­flat­able SUPS to get the chil­dren en­gaged and just make them feel a lit­tle bit nor­mal.”

And that’s just what these hur­ri­cane sur­vivors need: a sense of nor­malcy. If you’re think­ing about tak­ing a trip in the near fu­ture, don’t let the news de­ter you, Hous­ton, Key West and Puerto Rico are open for busi­ness. As pad­dlers, the best thing we can do is pack a board, hit the road and see what we can do to help.

Tor­res spent the next two weeks pad­dling door-to-door in sev­eral neigh­bor­hoods, res­cu­ing chil­dren and pets via SUP, while adults evac­u­ated in kayaks.

AP PHOTO/CHAR­LIE RIEDEL AP PHOTO/RA­MON ESPINOSA

It was all crafts on deck in Hous­ton, Texas af­ter Hur­ri­cane Harvey dropped record rain­fall in the re­gion. Here, Alex­en­dre Jorge evac­u­ates Ethan Col­man, 4, via SUP. (in­set) Lo­cal Roberto Figueroa Ca­ballero sits in what re­mained of his home in San Juan, Puerto Rico af­ter the dev­as­ta­tion of Hur­ri­cane Maria.

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