The Surfer Who Swapped Waves for Humanitarian Aid
Former pro Jon Rose was chasing the biggest swells in Sumatra when the 2009 earthquake hit, and he spent the next decade providing clean water in remote disaster zones. Last fall his Waves for Water crew was in Saint Croix when Hurricane Maria struck, so the team did what came naturally: got to work.
It was just before midnight on September 19, 2017, in the town of Christiansted, Saint Croix. Outside the yellow concrete walls of the Caravelle Hotel, Hurricane Maria was hurtling toward shore with Category 5 force. Jon Rose, who had come to the area to implement water-filtration systems in communities already devastated by Hurricane Irma, seemed less alarmed than amused. Since founding his nonprofit, Waves for Water, eight years ago, the 39-year-old had experienced the aftermath of 19 natural disasters, but he’d never been on the ground before one of them struck.
Rose stood outside, in an open stairwell, and held up his iPhone so that he and longtime friend and fellow former pro surfer Ben Bourgeois fit in the frame. Instagram needed a video update. “We’re here,” Rose said, squinting into the wind and chuckling. “Still standing.” He panned the scene. Palm trees heaved in the distance. Heavy rain streaked through the fluorescent light of a streetlamp. In a second video, Rose led the camera into his hotel room, focusing on clumps of ceiling panels that had fallen into the puddles on the floor. “It’s all water,” he said.
The next morning, Rose and Bourgeois, along with Waves for Water’s Haiti director, Fritz Pierre-Louis, stepped outside and into an almost unrecognizable landscape. “It was like a bomb had gone off,” Bourgeois told me. “The island had lost all its green.” The damage was just as severe in Puerto Rico, where Rob McQueen, field operations director and head of the organization’s Caribbean Hurricane Relief Initiative, and his team of three were located. Almost the entire island had lost power, and more than half the population was without clean water.
Rose’s special-ops-inspired response teams began working their contacts: friends in the Caribbean surfing community, Pierre-Louis’s Rotarian connection in Saint Croix, locals willing to ignore emergency curfews to reach isolated areas. McQueen led the overall operation, which initially consisted of just eight people, from Puerto Rico. “We did everything from connecting private-plane and helicopter owners to couriers, to flying in people with water filters,” he told me. “Finding ways to get things from outside normal channels is what we do.”
Within the first 72 hours, nearly all the 500 filters the teams had managed to pack in their checked baggage were being distributed across Saint Croix and Puerto Rico. After three weeks—as the U.S. government came under increasing fire for its ineffective disaster response in Puerto Rico, where 29 percent of the population still lacked potable water—Waves for Water had set up 3,600 filtration systems across seven islands, aiding an estimated 100,000 people. The group had even rented a 50-foot yacht, La Vagabond, to reach Dominica, 250 miles to the southeast of Saint Croix. By October 20, the Caribbean initiative was on pace to be one of Waves for Water’s most successful projects. Through partners and individual donations, it had raised nearly $300,000. Rose credited the organization’s success to its “breed of guerrilla humanitarianism.”
Last November, I met Rose at NeueHouse, a swanky co-working space off Park Avenue in Manhattan. It was just before lunch, and the palatial World War I–era building was bustling with young men and women direct from urban-creative central casting. I found Rose sitting on a window seat in front of his MacBook. One of NeueHouse’s original members is a friend, so Rose gets a discount on membership, which can run as high as $4,000 a month. “I think they like the idea of having a resident humanitarian,” he told me.
I’d met Rose in 2012, when he came to New York to help friends who lived in communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy. His curly dark brown hair, while still full, was now grayer. In the field, Rose always wears a pair of brown leather boots. (“It’s a psychological thing about safety. You don’t have control over anything external, but you have control over your response to it, so I’m going to wear boots.”) Now he wore high-top Vans, black jeans, and a black leather jacket over a gray hoodie. As always, he was eager to talk about Waves for Water, though his glassy blue eyes suggested that he could use some extra sleep.
A lot has happened since Sandy, when Waves for Water was barely two years old. Catastrophic floods in Brazil, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the Nepal earthquake, Hurricane Matthew in Haiti—Rose personally responded to all of them and more. The global water crisis has also grown ever more dire; today nearly one in nine people, some 783 million, are living without access to safe water, while the average American uses about 100 gallons every day.
Such statistics, and Waves for Water’s reputation for coming through with filters and aid in the most extreme conditions, has attracted partnerships with BMW and PayPal, as well as the United Nations and the U.S. military. Rose’s organization now raises an average of $2 million annually—not only to respond to natural disasters, but also to help people in regions where access to clean water is difficult. Rose moves fluidly around the world on a comfortable salary, split 25-75 between Waves for Water and the clothing company Hurley, which pays him as a brand ambassador. The nonprofit has ten full-time employees, including McQueen and Pierre-Louis, who work remotely from locations around the globe, and about 15 part-time employees, though that number can rise depending on funding, partnerships, and unforeseen disasters.
At NeueHouse, Rose’s iPhone wouldn’t stop buzzing with notifications. When he’s in New York, which is rarely for more than ten days at a time, he’s buried under the daily responsibilities of heading up an international nonprofit. There are phone conferences with the organization’s four directors around the world. There are potential partnerships to explore, often involving meetings with corporate suits in sparkling high-rises.
“I’m ready for a break,” Rose said, then clarified: “From a certain aspect of the work.”
Before September 30, 2009, Rose could never have imagined running a global humanitarian-aid organization. That day he was sitting on a boat moored off the city of Padang, Indonesia, just after a surf trip with friends. He was 31. He’d just retired after 13 years as a professional surfer. He and his wife, who he’d been with for eight years, were headed for divorce. Their Laguna Beach, California, condo, which Rose bought at the peak of the real estate bubble, was in foreclosure. As Rose put it, his mind was “a whole world of scrambled eggs.” And then a magnitude-7.6 earthquake hit Padang, reducing much of the city to rubble.
Rose’s father, Jack—a carpenter who started a nonprofit to help communities in Kenya and Uganda build rain-catchment systems—had encouraged his son to give back, and the trip to Indonesia seemed like the perfect opportunity. So Rose had packed ten palm-size ceramic water filters, which he intended to donate to a Balinese community he’d visited in the past. He’d even incorporated his mini-initiative, naming it Waves for Water. In Padang, however, Rose found a Red Cross center in desperate need of clean water for treating wounds, so he volunteered his filters. “I found a clarity that I hadn’t had in years, or maybe ever,” he said. “I was like, this is what I’m going to dedicate myself to.”
Less than four months later, in January 2010, Rose landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a few days after the deadliest earthquake in the history of the Western Hemisphere, on his first official Waves for Water disaster -response. A private donor had read a news article about Rose’s experience in Padang and offered him $40,000 to rush 4,000 water filters to Haiti. Waves for Water didn’t yet have 501(c)3 status, let alone 4,000 filters, but Rose said he’d do it anyway. He followed a ragtag group of responders to a Port-au-Prince home that had been arranged by the donor and started picking up on the lingo of the international-aid community. The “structure” had been “compromised,” so he pitched his tent in the yard. The stench of decomposing bodies hung thick in the air for weeks.
As it would be in Puerto Rico after Maria, the relief effort in Haiti was bogged down by the bureaucratic red tape of government and large NGOs, which left swaths of the disaster area totally ignored. “I was a one-man show,” Rose recalled. “I wasn’t competing against other organizations, I was competing against the crisis.” He gravitated to other independent responders, like the two paramedics from Florida who commandeered an ambulance to locate the injured and deliver them to hospitals.
Rose’s most important connection was Pierre-Louis, a Haitian businessman who seemed to be in possession of the only working BlackBerry in the country and who could coordinate relief to the hardest-hit neighborhoods. It was with Pierre-Louis that Rose perfected the strategy of going directly to needy communities with the filtration systems, each of which involved a filter connected to a five-gallon bucket by a tube and an adapter. (Today, Waves for Water utilizes the same system, made by Sawyer Products, which contains a microfiber cartridge that can catch 99.9 percent of the common bacteria, protozoa, and cysts that cause things like cholera, botulism, typhoid, and dysentery. The filters don’t need to have their cartridges changed and can function for years.) “The difference between Waves for Water and a lot of large organizations is that when there’s a catastrophe, we don’t spend time in meetings,” Pierre-Louis told me. “In two days, we are on the ground and getting to the people who are really in need.”
Together, Rose and Pierre-Louis identified community leaders and taught them how to assemble and maintain the filter systems, to ensure that they would remain effective for years to come. This is how Waves for Water still operates today. “We remain small on purpose,” Rose told me, referring to the crisis-response teams, which rarely have more than four members. “The goal for any aid organization should be: have the least amount of international people and the most amount of nationals.”
Waves for Water is no megalith, but it’s having an impact. In eight years, Rose and his teams have distributed more than 150,000 filter systems in 44 countries, helping an estimated seven million people.
Though it’s difficult to find, there has been criticism of Rose’s go-with-anybody approach to aid work. Some people denigrate him for partnering with the U.S. military. “It’s taboo,” he said. “In the minds of some aid providers, they’re saving the world and the military is killing it.” Rose also isn’t opposed to teaming up with companies that many other nonprofits refuse to work with. “If a mining company is willing to throw down and millions of people are going to benefit, I’ll take it—I have an agenda, too.”
With the exception of Hurricane Sandy, Waves for Water hasn’t responded to any disasters in the United States, a decision that has also sparked disapproval. After deciding to sit out the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Rose had to issue a statement. “The last thing we want to be is an ‘ambulance-chaser’ type org,” he wrote. Additionally, Waves for Water filters were not effective against the heavy metals in Flint’s water, he noted, and fixing the problem—repairing contaminated pipes—was something that the U.S. government could address.
In the remotest corners of Puerto Rico, where help from FEMA was minimal, Waves for Water’s response, led by McQueen, has been textbook guerrilla humanitarianism—and incredibly effective. Last winter, months after the hurricanes and the media attention that came with them, Waves for Water teams and their networks continued to expand their efforts. In Puerto Rico alone, over 6,000 filters had been distributed to 78 communities. Another 1,700 filters had been implemented across the Caribbean islands, and donations, most of them from individuals, surpassed $620,000.
Rose, however, was not there. He and his girlfriend, Loriann Smoak, who works for a retail tech startup, were spending the final weeks of 2017 in Colorado before signing a lease on a place in Marin County, California. After eight years of working nearly every day, Rose was taking a sabbatical. He loved New York for the “energy of its hustle,” and I wondered if—and how—he could truly unplug living in the Bay Area. “That’s the cool thing,” he said, as if on cue. “From a business-development standpoint, it’s a market we haven’t even scratched yet.”