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Reborn To Rescue

Photos courtesy
Surfzone Relief Operations

On this September day in the Year of Crazy Water, Malibu is on orange alert. A perfect storm, deep in the South Pacific, has produced what all the surf forecasters are predicting will be a historic swell. Tahiti already got it, Hawaii is getting it, and Malibu is about to get it. An electric charge is firing through the surf community, the way it does when big waves are on tap after an interminable summer drought. The swell is enough to threaten homes on a high tide. Matt George is tempted to go but asks about the water. Someone tells him the red tide is in, thick and brown, and Surfrider Beach is littered with dead crabs.

“Pass,” says George. “I’ve had enough dirty water for a while.”

One would guess so. A week after Katrina slammed New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, George found himself at the helm of a large Yamaha WaveRunner, motoring nine feet over the streets of the 9th Ward. He was there as a civilian with connections, supporting eight trained, professional swift-water rescue teams from the California Task Force. There are a lot of qualified, gung-ho Los Angeles County lifeguards/watermen/swift-water teams who weren’t allowed to go to New Orleans, and so it was a special privilege for George to be up to his chest in toxic sludge, in the heat, in the line of fire, in the water with starving dogs, water moccasins and gators, trying to persuade holdouts to evacuate.

So, instead of surfing, we meet for lunch in one of the cabanas in the back of Santa Monica’s Viceroy Hotel. The hotel is one of those well-done boutique makeovers of a place that used to have some ragged charm, at best. George is a former pro surfer of some renown, and he lives in Venice. He’s had his time with Hollywood, but he has never been in a Viceroy cabana. He likes it back here, mostly hipster-free and quiet, clean and well-lighted by a pale-blue, late-summer, world-class Los Angeles sky. Palm trees reflect the cool, clear, chlorinated water of the swimming pool.

George orders an ice-cold beer — “a luxury, considering where I’ve been this past year.” I get the $15 gourmet chili fries. He may be of this world, in a fashion, but he’s certainly not in it. With his bald head, distant eyes and air of quiet intensity, George seems out of place here. He has been back from New Orleans for a couple of days but wants to return. He knows there are people down there who have been forgotten.

Matt George has worn more than a few hats in his 46 years: pro surfer, globetrotting surfing journalist, screenwriter, assassin in training, actor, provocateur. He’s had successes that became failures and vice versa. At the first artificial-wave-pool surfing contest, held in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1985, George jumped from the crowd to the stage in a pair of bun-huggers to compete in a Hot Buns contest. He won the $1,000 first prize even though it was for ladies (which caused a minor civil disturbance), and when he did a victory leap from the stage back to the crowd, he broke his ankle.

In the early ’90s, George joined the Navy and entered the SEAL program. With his taste for adventure and physical prowess, George appeared to be an ideal candidate, but he ended up washing out of the program, something he publicly blamed on problems caused by his broken ankle. But there were other reasons.

Over the years, I have known a lot of Matt Georges, and I haven’t liked all of them. The bikini-contest guy I liked — how could you not? But in 1998, he went Hollywood and got the chance that all surfing journalists wanted. George wrote and starred in a high-budget surf movie called In God’s Hands, which focused on the growing conflict between paddle-in surfers and those who use Personal Water Craft (PWC) to catch big waves. It was intended to say something about the soul of surfing. The entire surfing community was pulling for him, until the movie hit the screen. It was a self-important and humorless flop, and I said as much in a piece in Surfer magazine. The rest of the world had a similar reaction. The movie bombed, but it spun off a TV show called Wind on Water, starring Bo Derek, that got yanked off the air faster than The Princes of Malibu. By many accounts, George was crushed by these failures and lost his sense of purpose.

George’s latest incarnation — semiprofessional and sometimes-unsanctioned water rescuer — was inspired by the Sumatran tsunami in December of 2004. The word that the earthquake was centered near Nias and that the islands of northern Sumatra were devastated rang red alerts in the ears of surfers. These islands are the crossroads of the surfing world, where some of the best waves in the world can be found. Matt knew the area well, knew many boat captains, villagers and their families personally, and knew he had to get over there to help. Orange County surfer Bill Sharp felt the same way, so they flew to Indonesia, hoping to be a part of some organized relief effort. On the ground, in the middle of bewildering death and carnage caused by waves that not even surfers could imagine, Matt found the “organized” part to be a canard.

“We got down there wanting to help, but when we saw firsthand the crushing pace that the big NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and the crooks at the Red Cross work at, we felt a deep disappointment,” George says. “I could go on and on, but at some point, Bill Sharp said, ‘Fuck it, let’s do it ourselves.’ So Bill took his Gold Card and chartered the 80-foot wooden yacht Mikumba and filled it with 30 tons of food, water, canoes, building material, goats, chickens and a full team of local doctors.”

Sharp and George sailed for the surfing mecca of Nias, and then for the island of Simeuleu, only 22 miles from the epicenter of the quake. Suspecting these outer islands had been forgotten, they arrived to find thousands of villagers suffering from everything from dehydration to malaria to tuberculosis. They dug in and helped, often swimming supplies in on their surfboards through crashing surf.

“Sharp went $45,000 in debt on that first mission, and in the end we did three of them,” George says. “It was all done on surfer brass. We move through life unfettered by rules, so we took that attitude and began our own relief mission.”

With eventual funding help from Billabong Sportswear and other private donors, George spent six months in Sumatra, working tirelessly to do some good in a sea of misery. At some point, Sharp and George took a liking to the work and started a shoestring nonprofit called Surfzone Relief Operations (SRO). Now, where trouble goes, they are eager to follow.

“Our mandate is remote coastal aid, because we are familiar with the coast and have skills in those areas that others don’t,” says George. “During our operations in Sumatra, a couple of times we were paddling supplies on our surfboards through 6-foot surf over barrier reefs. That was the only way in. Who else could do that?”

George and Sharp returned to California in June to do some fund-raising, when trouble began brewing in the form of Hurricane Katrina.

“Surfers are meteorologists, because storms cause the waves we surf — we knew what Katrina was going to do,” George says. “So, after Katrina hit, we were looking for a way to get in. And then we got a miracle phone call from Shawn Alladio: ‘I’ve organized some machines,’ she told us. ‘Let’s partner up.’ ”

There are many brave men and women who aren’t asleep in the deep, thanks to Shawn Alladio. The mother of two and owner of K38 Water Safety, Alladio lives in Whittier but spends most of the year teaching proper handling of PWC to surfers, search-and-rescue teams, police and fire departments, and the United States military. Alladio knew and/or trained many of the individuals and teams that made up the eight swift-water rescue teams in the California Task Force deployed to New Orleans.

When Katrina hit, Alladio worked with Yamaha to round up several WaveRunners for the New Orleans mission. Looking for backup she could trust, Alladio then called Sharp, George and Frank Quirarte, a former Air Force mechanic and Pacifica-based surf photographer who has spent hundreds of hours risking the big waves at Mavericks on PWCs, pulling half-drowned surfers from Davy Jones’ locker. Once again, Bill Sharp found himself laying down his credit card for flights and rental trucks, to the tune of about $5,000. The Surfzone Relief Operations/K38 sub-task-force was formed.

“Shawn Alladio is the only female instructor in the Navy SEAL program. Bill and I are sons of fighter pilots who share the mission gene, and Frank is just a badass who can fix any PWC... We were like a benevolent SEAL team. The Delta Force of surfing,” George says, then checks himself for sounding like a cowboy. “Part of the reason my Navy SEAL thing went south is, I didn’t want to kill people. Now we get to do this sort of thing, and it’s to help people, and it’s really changed my entire life.”

George has been there and done that. He led the first surf trip to China in the ’80s, and he climbed Kilimanjaro twice, but the drive from Baton Rouge to New Orleans shocked him on many levels: “I got my first impression of New Orleans crossing one of those seven-mile causeways,” George says. “I thought, ‘Okay, let’s build a city below sea level in a delta in the middle of hurricane alley and call it a place?’ Man was just not meant to live in the Delta. It’s for wildlife. But as we drove on, I began to see all the oil rigs and refineries. Everywhere. Oil, oil, oil. It looked like Kuwait, and I started thinking, ‘Oh, I get it now...’ ”

The scene they drove into was anarchy plus apocalypse multiplied by racial tension cubed by desperation, starvation and dehydration, with snakes and gators and an awful lot of guns thrown into the equation. There were no rules, and there were lots of rules. To get into the city, they ran a gauntlet of flooded roads, sunken bridges, nervous police officers, National Guardsmen and checkpoints.

“We pulled into New Orleans at midnight, completely lost, towing all these WaveRunners,” George says. “I saw a cop, but as I drove toward him, he was racing away from me. I finally flagged him over, and he says, ‘What are you doing here? Are you crazy?’ I say we were trying to find Zephyr Field, and he says, ‘Are you out of your minds? It’s way over there. Don’t stop. If someone is lying down in the middle of the road, go around them or run them over. You have got to get out of here, man.’ That was a wake-up call.”

The three men and the lady ended up as part of a force of thousands at the Zephyr Stadium staging ground in Jefferson Parish. The sporting facility was high and dry, with an outdoor baseball field for a helicopter pad and an enclosed training facility for the New Orleans Saints converted to a temporary giant dorm. This was the antithesis of the Superdome or the New Orleans Convention Center — all of it ordered by an urgent sense of mission.

“We bunked down in the end zone with firemen and rescue professionals from all over,” George says. “We were in the middle of a huge staging area, with helicopters constantly landing and taking off, and it all felt like a good kind of battle. We had no authority, just audacity and skills. We did our best to stay out of everybody’s way.”

All four had driven PWC in hazardous situations — in the big-wave impact zones at Jaws and Mavericks, through shark-infested waters at Dungeons in South Africa — but patrolling flooded neighborhoods on PWC was still surreal. “The water was absolutely vile,” George says. “They called it a toxic gumbo. It was horrible. Everything you hear on the news is true. The pictures don’t do it justice.”

George’s crew launched from flooded Louisa Street, armed with machetes for water moccasins, escorted by men with guns. George remembers all the guns on both sides of the law, and the smell of death.

“What all the reporters were saying on TV was true,” George says. “You had to be there to grasp the apocalypse. In times of disaster, a horrible stench amplifies the panic and fear. The smell is a horrendous, white noise that you can’t escape, that causes a kind of hysteria, because every primal cell in your body is screaming: ‘That is death. Get away.’ It’s easy to see that this added to the panic.”


When the Industrial Canal breached,
the 9th Ward was hit by the equivalent of a small tsunami. Damage was so complete that the head of Homeland Security for New Orleans, Colonel Terry Ebbert, wrote the place off in The New York Times: “There’s nothing out there that can be saved at all.” That is where George, Quirarte and Sharp were deployed for their day in the water, to a sector of New Orleans that was overlooked in the ?best of times: a shantytown built on a swamp that became a segregation flash point. Norman Rockwell made the 9th Ward famous in his painting of the young Ruby Bridges, in her best school dress, walking to school past jeering crowds, escorted by police. The 9th Ward had been devastated by Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and was underwater again.

“The 9th Ward reminded me very much of our experiences in the islands off Banda Aceh after the tsunami,” George says. “That is, a desperate people, a poor people, who had been abandoned by their local government.”

Driving carefully down flooded streets on their PWC, keeping an eye out for live power lines, snakes, alligators, bubbling gas mains and other water hazards, they would sometimes bump the tops of cars and trucks. The scene was a combination of Apocalypse Now and Waterworld — surreal, fascinating, impossible. But their focus was sharpened by citizens who were in deep trouble and very glad to see them. “You have no idea,” George says. “We came across people who were gray-faced, suffering, starving, dying. Some were drinking that toxic water, and they were suffering terribly.”

After six months in Sumatra, George was no stranger to death, but he still saw things that stayed with him. Passing one house that was flooded almost to the top of a chainlink fence designed to keep people out, he saw the owner’s body floating on the surface, kept in by the top of the fence. A starving dog was up on the porch, howling.

Some of the citizens of the 9th Ward wanted to be evacuated, some didn’t. The California Task Force was given a strict set of protocols for dealing with “holdouts,” and the volunteers had to learn them quickly. The most effective rescue Matt George was involved in was at a local school. There were 19 people on the second floor who didn’t want to leave, because the first team that had shown up was made up of Louisiana State Police.

“They were heavily armed with their reflective shades, and the people in the building were intimidated,” George says. At the same time they were talking to the 19 in the school, they had motored in a local cop who lived in the neighborhood to check on his house, which was completely underwater and destroyed. “Then,” recalls George, “Bill had the bright idea: ‘Why don’t we take him over to the school so he can talk these people out?’ And we did, and he talked to them, a local to locals, and they agreed to go.”

Using PWC and small boats, the task force ferried all 19 of the stranded citizens back to the ramp at Louisa Street, where the troop transports picked them up to take them to the staging areas.

“The greatest moment for me?” George says. “I was carrying this man on my back out of the water to safety. He was about 60, and all alone when we found him living in the upper level of a church — up where they keep the organ. As I was carrying him, he was praying right into my ear. He was praying to his god, and I could feel his breath on my ear, and his prayer was so incredibly articulate and clear and soulful. He was thanking his Great Spirit for sending angels: ‘I asked for angels, Lord.’ Here was this man who was so incredibly eloquent when he was talking to his God. Considering the disturbing images we all saw on TV of hysterical citizens screaming in frustration, I just thought: If only everybody could hear this

George and everyone involved were under orders to be out of the water by 4 p.m. At their ramp on Louisa Street, they rinsed off with a dilution of Clorox bleach. Driving away, they passed National Guard motorcades that stretched for miles, pouring into the city to keep order. Back in Zephyr Stadium, everyone who had been in the water took showers with fresh water to take off the bleach. “There was a real feeling of camaraderie in Zephyr Stadium,” George says. “We were honored just to be there, a trio of civilians among all these professionals. I would lie there in the end zone of an indoor football field, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people who all had the mission gene, staring up at the ceiling. A thousand images would flash through my memory, most of them not very nice, but at the end of the day, I found myself smiling.”


Matt George and Bill Sharp’s Surfzone Relief Operations
is readying to go back to the Indian Ocean to help Padang City in western Sumatra prepare for the next tsunami. George and a lot of others believe Padang City is “the next Banda Aceh.” SRO floated derelict boats out of the river to serve as evacuation bridges, and the group has established a citywide evacuation plan. “We put a siren in the highest minaret of a district mosque, and then, with our staff from a local university, went door-to-door around the district explaining the route to higher ground,” George says. “We crossed our fingers and lit the siren, and 10,000 people evacuated the district in a cool, calm manner. We were very proud. It was the first test evacuation in Indonesian history.”

SRO hopes to raise the funds to turn its chartered yacht Mikumba into a permanent Calypso of the Indian Ocean, bringing doctors and education to the farthest-flung islands. “All this is life-changing for me because it has served as an inspiration for something I or anybody can do. We can do this. We don’t have to wait for them,” George says. “What’s electrifying to me is that anyone who has this kind of impulse can do it, because everyone in the world is qualified to help. Everyone has a skill they can contribute, and it’s just a matter of doing it.

“And I am here to tell you that there is a gratification, and even a selfishness, to being able to help. I truly believe that helping others is as natural a human impulse as fighting. And I truly believe that the reason that fighting is so prevalent is because it’s easier to do. But given the opportunity, humans will put that same fighting energy into helping each other. I’ve seen it time and again.”

It is now late afternoon in the back of the Viceroy Hotel, and the sky is turning that beautiful, late-summer Dodger blue, when George’s phone rings.

He takes the call: “Matt George speaking... I’m doing well now... Honda of Lafayette. Two three-seaters, that’s great. I might be going out late tomorrow or early next morning. Or maybe after Hurricane Rita, depending on where she goes... Yes, and thanks again. I’ll let you know how it goes.”

“We’re going back down there, to places in the Delta I know have been overlooked,” George says.

Surfzone Relief Operations is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit. If you would like to make a donation, please visit www.surfzonerelief.org.

At press time, Matt George had just landed in Islamabad. He will be heading by chopper to northern Kashmir to deliver medicine and help set up clinics for the victims of the recent earthquake in Pakistan.

October 25 update: Matt is in Pakistan with Direct Relief International, a partner working in conjuction with SRO in Pakistan, whose website can be visited at www.directrelief.org.