Dark Hori­zons

Surfer - - Contents - By JON COEN

Af­ter a hur­ri­cane sea­son marked by per­fect waves and wide­spread dev­as­ta­tion, those af­fected con­sider cli­mate change, storm gen­er­a­tion and the fraught fu­ture of their coasts

Af­ter a hur­ri­cane sea­son marked by per­fect waves and wide­spread dev­as­ta­tion, those af­fected con­sider cli­mate change, storm gen­er­a­tion and the fraught fu­ture of their coasts

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 our

“What was mirac­u­lous to me was that more peo­ple didn’t die.” – OTTO FLORES

pa­per 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.

“When I was surf­ing pro­fes­sion­ally, hur­ri­canes just meant ‘Where are we go­ing to surf?’ But I feel like the storms are chang­ing now.” – GABE KLING

“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.

(Pre­vi­ous spread) Hur­ri­cane sea­son can be a bit­ter­sweet time for East Coast surfers. While the storm-rav­aged is­lands of the Car­ib­bean were dealt heavy blows this fall, north­ern lo­cales like Lido Beach in New York saw all­time surf. Photo by NEL­SON

(Right) A har­row­ing bird’s-eye view of Maria’s de­struc­tion on the coast of St. Croix. Photo by WIL­SON

(Op­po­site) Af­ter wit­ness­ing the ef­fects the 2017 hur­ri­cane sea­son had on his home­town in Puerto Rico, Flores has as dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on scor­ing hur­ri­cane-pro­duced waves like this one. Photo by RIVERA

(Above) St. Croix nor­mally looks like a trop­i­cal par­adise, but af­ter Irma and Maria’s be­siege­ment, the Car­ib­bean isle looked more like a rav­aged dystopia than a tourist desti­na­tion. Photo by WIL­SON

(Op­po­site) Balaram Stack, slot­ted some­where in New Jer­sey dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Irma. Photo by NEL­SON

(Op­po­site) Af­ter wreak­ing havoc in the Car­ib­bean and leav­ing sev­eral is­land na­tions in dire straits, Hur­ri­cane Maria spi­raled out into the At­lantic, spar­ing much of the East Coast from its wrath and send­ing waves as far north as Canada. Pete Devries, some­where far north of the storm. Photo by MCINNIS

(Above) Af­ter the 2017 hur­ri­cane sea­son, de­bris lit­tered the streets of Puerto Rico, St. Croix, Bar­buda and Do­minica. Photo by WIL­SON

(Op­po­site) Hur­ri­canes Irma, Jose and Maria left both good waves and dev­as­ta­tion in their wake. Gabe Kling in North Carolina, on the for­tu­nate side of the af­ter­math. Photo by LUSK

(Right) The Outer Banks are per­fectly ex­posed to low-pres­sure sys­tems, north­east­ers and trop­i­cal storm events, mak­ing the area a pop­u­lar han­gout dur­ing ev­ery fall for sand-bot­tom tube hounds. Photo by LUSK

Ac­cord­ing to Brett Bar­ley, pic­tured here tucked in­side a hol­low Outer Banks tube, North Carolina lo­cals have weath­ered their fair share of dev­as­tat­ing storms over the years. But this fall, res­i­dents breathed a col­lec­tive sigh of re­lief for be­ing out­side the paths of Irma, Jose and Maria. Photo by LUGO

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