From Ruin To Redemption

I've been home from Indonesia for a couple of days now, and I can't say it's getting any easier. A week after witnessing the destruction and loss of life in Padang, everything here in Laguna Beach seems so placid and insignificant.

Like a lot of surfers, this summer I'd signed on for a Mentawai boat trip with some friends. We've been going there for years and there was nothing exceptional about this trip. After that I had plans to fly to Bali and do some humanitarian work for my new foundation, Waves For Water. My father, Jack, has an existing water-related non-profit called Rain Catcher, and a few months ago he and I launched the sister foundation with one central goal in mind: Create a platform for the surf community to help bring clean water to Third World villages around the world. I had no idea we'd be put to the test so early and in such dyer circumstances.

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At one point we were standing next to what used to be a little shopping center and I could hear faint voices crying for help from beneath the rubble.

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The day the quake hit my friends and I were enjoying our last day in the islands. We felt something on the boat, but couldn't be sure exactly what. The following day we were scheduled to sail back to the harbor in Padang, but that night our boat captain got news that a big earthquake had hit the Sumatran capital. As time went on we kept hearing more and more bits of information, but in no way did we have a clear picture of how bad things were.

As we got closer to Padang our captain kept getting more and more updates on how catastrophic the damage actually was. This is when it all really started to sink in that this was bad. Anyone who's ever done a boat trip out there knows that you are pretty much cut off from the rest of the world out there, and it can really feel as if you are living in a little bubble of surf bliss.

When we finally got to Padang we weren't allowed to anchor in the harbor, so we set the pick directly off of the city limits. The roads to and from the harbor had been destroyed, and now, with a clear view of the city, we saw the wreckage with our own eyes.

Everyone on the boat was sharing similar emotions of curiosity and anxiety towards our anticipated exit strategy. We got word that there were no flights operating out of Padang Airport, that 80 percent of structures were damaged, and there was no electricity. There was some spotty cell service so we were able to contact loved ones and let them know they were alive. At this point, everyone on the boat had one main concern—getting home!

I had 10 ceramic water filters in my bag that I had planned on using for my upcoming Bali trip, and immediately became consumed with trying to get these filters into Padang and in the hands of relief efforts. My purpose had changed in a split second. I knew the significant impact my filters could have and had to act.

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The drive through Padang to the Red Cross station felt like something out of a battle scene in a Terminator movie. Smoke and rubble was everywhere, people were yelling, while others absently stood there smoking cigarettes, frozen in a state of shock. It was so soon after the quake that it seemed there was no real understanding of what happened or more importantly, what to do. Everyone just looked helpless.

When we arrived at the central Indonesian Red Cross station I wasted no time. I walked in hoping to find someone who spoke English. Their operations were definitely stunted due to a severe lack of resources, manpower, and electricity. There was a tent outside holding most of the severely wounded people that came in. The inside of the building was set up with a few desks and the odd computer or communication device, none of which were working due to the power outage. The temperature must have been in the mid-90s and humidity was like 100 percent.

I found their best English speaking representative. His name was Alfri. I asked if they needed water filters. Their eye's popped out of their heads as if I had just said they won the lottery. It was a look I will never forget as long as I live. They said access to clean water was one of their biggest challenges, and not just for drinking but also to use in cleaning and treating the wounded.

However, I couldn't do anything without the proper materials. The filters needed to be built into a system for proper use and operation. I had literature on the filters, as well as directions, but this was a unique circumstance in which I had almost zero resources and materials. I had set many of these systems up in the past using the standard stackable paint bucket system that the manufacturer recommends, but this was way different.

Most any other day in Padang and you could find these universal items that the filters require, but this wasn't any other day. The Red Cross had no paint buckets or anything of the sort. So Alfri and I left on a full-fledged charge in and around the dismantled city in search of containers to use for the filtration systems. That journey into the bowels of this catastrophe was a life changing experience that is engrained in me forever.

At one point we were standing next to what used to be a little shopping center and I could hear faint voices crying for help from beneath the rubble. There was so much concrete that we were left helpless like everyone else. The only way to get to these trapped people would be to remove the giant pieces of concrete with a tractor. There were only a few tractors operating throughout the entire city, and they were overloaded as is. I felt helplessness, and utter sadness, as we continued on our mission.

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In a setting that was constantly bombarded with bad news we all sat there and looked at one another with huge smiles and a sense of real accomplishment. It was beautiful.

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After driving around for a couple hours we found clear, plastic, five-gallon canisters that are probably used to store gasoline. I bought four of them with hopes of setting up two fully operational systems by the end of the day.

We finally made it back to the Red Cross, it was time to get creative and start assembling the system. The next couple hours were magical. Red Cross workers and I collaborated on various ideas and methods of how to modify the new materials and make them into working filtration systems. I had my Gerber seven-inch knife packed in my bag and I used that to cut through the hard plastic, make holes, and slices wherever needed. The whole process was a team effort and truly would not have worked without everyone's input.

Finally we had finished one system. It wasn't the prettiest thing but it seemed to have everything in its right place. We went out behind the building to a well that sat in direct sunlight. He said there's water in here, but it's completely contaminated. He said there are well's like this attached to the rear of most buildings but no one ever uses them because they are too dirty.

I told him this is what these filters are made for so we lowered a bucket into the brownish-yellow water. At close glance the water was even more horrific than I thought. It was a rich yellow color filled with algae and other clumps of who know what floating in it. We walked back to the system and poured the water in. It takes about an hour for an entire paint bucket to filter so I was assuming it'd be about the same for this system.

Going a little slower than expected, about a half hour later the bottom reservoir had filled up just above the spigot. I grabbed a cup off of a desk and filled it up with the filtered water. It was crystal clear in color but still a bit nervous I said, "Here you go boys."

They looked at me and said, "You first!"

I proceeded to drink it. Everyone started cheering as if they were surprised I didn't immediately keel over. Then they all joined me in drinking from this very significant first batch of clean water. In a setting that was constantly bombarded with bad news we all sat there and looked at one another with huge smiles and a sense of real accomplishment. It was beautiful.

By day's end there were two fully operational filtration systems and a dozen people who were now well educated in the technology. I left the other eight filters with Alfri and he said that the flowing day he would gather more materials and personally distribute them to different Red Cross station around the region.

He asked me one thing as I was leaving, "When can we get more filters?"

I left Alfri that evening with a new mission: To get home as soon as possible and find a way to get him more filters. It took me 60 hours to finally get home. I have been home for a couple days and everything I experienced is just now sinking in. I have been tirelessly reflecting on all the things I saw. Going through every emotion and feeling known to man. I sit here completely humbled.