Surfers and Hurricane Katrina

Courtesy of the Pacifica Tribune:
For surfers in peril at the legendary Mavericks surf break, Pacificas own Frank Quirarte has often appeared as their angel of mercy, tearing into the notorious impact zone on his personal watercraft (PWC) to pull them to safety at the last minute.

Few of those grateful wave riders might have had an inkling that Quirarte, the founder of Mavericks Surf Rescue Team, a rescue boat Instructor for K38 Rescue and a globally renowned big wave photographer, would put those same skills to work in the hardest-hit parts of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

Days after Katrina roared through, Quirarte joined a quickly assembled PWC Task Force to support the equipment and manpower needs of FEMA Urban Search and Rescue teams from throughout California. The program was initiated by Shawn Alladio owner of K-38 Rescue, an instructor of law enforcement and military agencies in the use of PWCs who also persuaded Yamaha to ship eight of the urgently needed Waverunners ahead of them to Louisiana. Rounding out the group were Bill Sharp and Matt George of Surfzone Relief, a Newport Beach-based organization specializing in remote coastal aid.

After a breathless cross-country mission to pick up trucks in Houston, hitching up trailers brimming with watercraft in Baton Rouge and a midnight run into the silent, debris-strewn, pitch-black streets of the Big Easy, Quirarte found himself inside the Federal Emergency Management Agencys Command Post at the New Orleans Saints practice facility. Located on the relatively-dry West end of the city, the outdoor football fields had been converted into landing zones for a nonstop flow of Blackhawk, Huey and Chinook helicopters while the indoor fields artificial turf became the sleeping quarters for Quirarte and thousands of other rescue, law enforcement and military personnel spread out on cots amid pallet loads of MREs Meals, Ready to Eat.

But it was in the deeply submerged East side, in the areas poorest neighborhoods alongside the breached Industrial Canal where Quirarte and his team were soon put to work. Assisting firefighters from places like Menlo Park, Orange and San Diego Counties, Quirarte began putting his skills on the watercraft to effective use, searching the endless, flooded grid of neighborhoods streets for survivors, and carefully transferring those who were found to the safety of dry land.

Many evacuees were suffering from medical or mental health complications that made their delivery that much more challenging though fetid waters still strewn with the corpses. Frank and his team developed their own techniques, like loading victims into Zodiac inflatable boats and pulling them to safety behind the jet-powered PWCs (not unlike the rescue sleds employed at Mavericks). Many had to be hauled up to two miles through flooded neighborhoods loaded with hazards lying just inches below the surface to the closest dry land freeway onramps from the elevated I-10, which dropped away into the contaminated waters. At these impromptu boat launch ramps, US Army trucks, ambulances and helicopters waited to take evacuees to shelters or advanced medical treatment.

Perhaps Quirarte’s greatest moment in New Orleans came late on a Tuesday afternoon, a full eight days after Katrinas initial fury had passed. For over a week an extended family of holdouts had refused all requests and orders to leave and had barricaded themselves on the second floor of a school, frustrating rescue teams day after day. That morning Quirarte had made friends with the children who were in the school, delivering cold drinks and candy. Having a young son of his own, Quirarte tried to persuad the father to at least let the children go with him but to no avail. He continued to check on the family throughout the day. Quirarte befriended a local parish police officer named Smitty who had been guarding the boat launch area and after taking him on an emotional tour of his flooded house, Frank decided to take him over to the school to take a shot at getting the group to leave.

When Quirarte brought Smitty to the school there was tension in the air as several boats full of heavily armed police and Army Rangers were advising the holdouts of the new mandatory evacuation orders. But Smitty knew the schoolhouse refugees and it wasnt long before the Parish cop and the California surfer went into the filth-ridden school as a team and talked with the leaders inside. Soon the tensions were defused and a deal was brokered eighteen persons in the school agreed to leave, but only if they could go together. Boats were loaded and with Quirarte leading the tight flotilla, the promise was kept all the way to shore. It turned out to be one of the larger group rescues of the week.

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