Driving over the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Bridge toward the Rockaway Peninsula, the first discernable evidence of catastrophe is the half-mile wide mountain of rubble bulldozed atop the parking lot of Jacob Riis Park, a desolate sweep of sand, sea grass, and concrete that wraps the wiry tail of Long Island like a bandage. Heading east into Rockaway Beach, we glance nervously at the NYPD and National Guardsmen stationed at dead traffic lights, and at the men siphoning gas from abandoned cars strewn everywhere. On 87th, we cleave the guts of flooded homes and park beside a long procession of people queuing up for rations outside the Rockaway Surf Club, where founder of Waves For Water, Jon Rose, and a group of local surfers, anxiously wait.
“Glad to see you made it,” Rose says, behind him the grimy brick walls of the club, accented with a surfing-inspired calavera mural. “We were wondering how a trip into New York City with a thousand-pound gas bomb would go over with Homeland Security.”
Earlier that morning, professional surfer Andrew Gesler and I met in his hometown of Ocean City—a Southern New Jersey barrier island also hit hard by Sandy—where we loaded six 25-gallon containers of fuel into the back of an unmarked pick-up, grounded the tanks with jumper cables, tarped the cargo, and made the tense three-hour trip up the Garden State Parkway and into New York City.
It was a dangerous and not-quite-legal mission, but it was just the kind of maneuver that fits Rose’s “guerilla humanitarianism” philosophy—a style he adopted in the days following the 2009 earthquake in Padang, Indonesia, when, as a one-man show, he pulled together key community members to distribute portable water filters, ultimately saving thousands of lives and launching the non-profit Waves for Water.
“Indonesia was a very tangible experience,” says Rose. “I made a lot of impact in a short amount of time and it just clicked. I knew this guerilla mentality that comes naturally to athletes, travelers, and adventurers—like surfers—could be replicated and implemented around the world.”
Andrew Gesler is just one in a groundswell of volunteer surfers from New Jersey and New York’s tight-knit beach communities who have joined Rose’s team, using close relationships up and down the coast, as well as a fearlessness nurtured by a career chasing waves, to quickly build the Sandy Relief Initiative (Waves for Water’s first disaster relief mission on U.S. soil) into a strikingly efficient operation.
“My life is pretty much about taking risks,” Gesler tells me later. “I’ve encountered the word ‘can’t’ so many times, like, ‘You’re a surfer from New Jersey, you can’t surf the best waves in the world’ or ‘You can’t make a living out of this.’ If you tell me I’m not allowed or can’t do something, I’m going to figure out a way to prove you wrong.”
Another renowned Jersey pro, Sam Hammer, has also been quick on his feet since waking up on October 30 and discovering that parts of his beloved surf stomping grounds in Bay Head, Mantoloking, Lavallette, and Seaside Heights had been literally washed away. When the National Guard evacuated the island due to exploding gas lines, failed roads and bridges, and looting, Hammer redirected and rushed to get supplies into Staten Island, where 30-foot fishing boats were deposited several blocks inland and thousands of residents wandered the streets in need of basic goods like toiletries and cleaning supplies.