This story originally appeared in the 2018 Summer Issue.
Words by Jack Haworth • Photos by Aaron Black-Schmidt
You heard about Maria.
The Category 4 hurricane wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and brought the U.S. island territory of Puerto Rico to its knees last September. She was a mistress of destruction whose 155 mph winds and 30 inches of rain dismantled infrastructure and left millions without electricity or running water for months.
But what about the other Maria? The real Maria? The elderly woman who shared the storm's name? The one who experienced those violent winds and torrential rains—and the one who dealt with its impact on her home, her island, and her people?
It was only there, at Maria's house, where I grasped the reality of this hurricane that I had heard so much about. Mainstream news reports did not match the despair I heard from paddlers I talked to on the ground. Six months after the storm, the resolve of this humble namesake character, and those who came to her aid, made one thing clear: The only way to understand the island's post-disaster motto, Puerto Rico se levanta, or Puerto Rico rises, was through the lives of the people rising from the wreckage.
Maria's house sits high in the lush green mountains overlooking the brilliant blue ocean. From that vantage, I watched as two paddlers from disparate backgrounds, Albert Lash, a big-wave surfer from Rincón and Father Kevin Gabriel Gillen, a Dominican friar from New York City, helped this "forgotten woman."
For months, the 'real Maria,' a devout Catholic with crosses, rosaries and religious pictures adorning her wooden walls, waited helplessly in a leaking house, teetering on the edge of its foundation with no access to running water or electricity. She lived in this state of squalor for six months, until Lash and Gillen literally answered her prayers. Gillen secured a donation, and, after connecting with Lash through a mutual acquaintance, the Rincón local and the sharp-witted friar put together a team of 10-15 paddlers and surfers. They took on Maria's house armed with hammers, saws, concrete, roofing materials, paint and extra supplies.
"It's a blessing," Lash told me as his crew worked fervently around us, the cacophony of construction nearly drowning out our conversation. "This woman had figurines of God inside her house and I think that's what held it together."
Lash felt a responsibility to help the community where he was born and raised. And it was in this community where he found his own success. Lash runs Rd.2 Happiness, a surf and SUP school with three rental shacks on various Rincón beaches. He also recently opened a new restaurant, called El Patio. But his new ventures weren't immune to the common hardship of the storm: months of no power, no water and the destruction of his three beach shacks.
"I'm a human being and I like to help," said Lash. "After going through so many things with this storm, I said, 'Albert, you are going to keep going and this is will make you better and better every day.'"
He's put that thought into action, not only rebuilding two of his own shacks, but also helping restore around 20 homes in the mountains, including Maria's.
"After the storm, she thought nobody would come and help her," Lash translated as I spoke to Maria. "With these people here she feels blessed. She can't even explain and the tears go down her face with how happy she is."
I quickly discovered that Lash's selfless action to help those less fortunate was common among many business owners in Rincón. But it was not the first time this quintessential Caribbean surf town perched on the northwest coast of the island had surprised. In 2014, Rincón won SUP Magazine's inaugural Paddle Town Battle ahead of much more obvious hotbeds of the sport, signaling that the community of just over 15,000 was home to some of the most impassioned standup paddlers on earth.
It was here where we spent three nights at Villa Playa Maria, a resort that hosts watermen's retreats throughout the year located right on Rincón's most famous beach, named—no kidding—Maria's. Once the hurricane hit, the Villa's owners not only opened their doors to provide locals with access to their water cisterns and generators, but they also set up a GoFundMe account that raised $40,000. Owner Russ Scully used that money to buy 210 water cisterns and teamed up with waterman and frequent visitor Chuck Patterson to deliver them up into the mountains to those in need.
Pioneering local SUP paddler Adrian Garcia understands the plight of those living in the mountains better than anyone. He was raised there, "upstairs" in the projects, by a mother who was everything to him, but could not read or write.
"When you live in the projects, people put a stamp on you," said Garcia. "But I found an escape in the ocean to shine by my own."
As a kid, Garcia came down to watch tourists and locals surfing at Wilderness Beach, a remote right-hand reef break surrounded by lush jungle and towering palm trees in the town of Aguadilla. He began by fetching tourists' surfboards from the urchin-covered rocks for small tips, before taking up bodyboarding. He began competing around the island at 14, and after finding success, got the opportunity to compete around the world for Puerto Rico.
"It's beautiful, man. Every day I pray to God for the way he saved me and put me in this," said Garcia.
Now 41, Garcia leaned against his truck after a three-hour session at Wilderness, his warm smile and genuine personality drawing several old friends over to say hello. He was one of the early adopters of standup paddling in the region and it was evident in the lineup. While I was content to carve across the face of the pristine head-high peelers, Garcia was smashing lips and busting airs. But despite this deep-rooted love for the ocean, that particular session was only his fourth in the past six months.
Garcia was in San Juan when Hurricane Maria decimated the island's infrastructure. With roads blocked, communications eliminated and food scarce, Garcia lost 26 pounds and spent over two weeks wondering whether his family on the other side of the island was alive or dead. An orthopedic assistant by trade, he volunteered to help the National Guard and was eventually hired by FEMA to deliver water, medicine and food to those in the mountain regions. What he found was utter devastation.
"People were crying for food," said Garcia. "I didn't sleep for a few days after what I saw. It was unreal."
While the official death toll in Puerto Rico was listed at 64 for months after the incident, Garcia questioned that. His count was no less than a hundred. He explained how hospitals were shut down because they were filled with bodies; workers forced to evacuate and the Army arriving to remove the dead.
According to Garcia, and reports by the Center for Investigative Journalism and The New York Times, the true death toll was likely over 1,000.
Editor’s Note: This story was published in our summer issue which hit newsstands in late June. In late August, the Puerto Rican government accepted the findings of a study from George Washington University and formally raised the official death toll from 64 to 2,975.
After witnessing trauma on that scale, Garcia could not bring himself to surf. His conscience would not allow it. Plus, the storm had wiped out his entire quiver of boards.
"As a waterman, surfing for four days in six months has changed my life completely," said Garcia. "But I can't go out for now. I want to sleep knowing everything is more normal, that babies are not suffering."
Garcia is not sure when he will return to the water for good, but on that particular late April day he rode waves, laughed with old friends and revisited his home beach, where, for a few moments, everything felt normal.
Normal. It's a word that carries with it a connotation of basic, mundane and even boring. Yet for the 3.4 million American citizens living on the island of Puerto Rico, normal was what they yearned for and worked tirelessly to achieve. Perhaps no place was this desire for normalcy more apparent than Rincón's Villa Cofresi Hotel.
It was Semana Santa or "Holy Week" during our visit. Gleeful screams filled the hotel lobby with kids frolicking by the pool while hearty laughter bellowed from adults enjoying cervezas at the bar. The atmosphere felt decidedly normal as I chatted with the husband and wife owner-operator duo, Tito Mendez and Sandra Caro.
Caro's parents bought the waterfront hotel in 1965 and expanded it to 12 rooms to host surfers competing at the famous 1968 World Surfing Championships, the contest that put Rincón on the map as a surf destination.
"This was the hotel that started everything in Rincón," said Caro. "The history of Rincón starts here." The hotel has expanded to 120 rooms, every one of them booked for the weekend we were there. Things felt normal, but the road to get to that point was anything but.
The couple explained how the storm had lashed the hotel and caused extensive damage to many rooms, flooded the lobby where we were sitting, eroded the sea wall and most alarmingly, ripped off a roof that landed in an empty parking lot, 200 meters away. Despite the damage, they jumped into action immediately.
"The wind was still blowing and we were already working," said Mendez.
Their quick action allowed them to get building materials before they were all taken, a move that saw them officially reopen their doors on December 8. But off the books, their doors were open well before that, just not for business.
"We rebuilt but we also helped our community," said Caro. "This hotel was like the center of town, people came here for everything."
They explained how their conference room was transformed into an impromptu warehouse for the hundreds of different necessities donated by friends in the States, and how they cooked daily for 400 to 500 people for nearly five months.
Unfortunately, there was one item the storm took that could not be replaced: the beach in front of the hotel. The lost sand is an issue only Mother Nature can remedy.
"This hurricane was like no other, so it's taken longer for our beach to come back," said Caro. "We're praying it comes back because otherwise we'll be in big trouble."
The missing sand forced them to cancel their famous Rincón Beachboy SUP race for the year. The race usually takes place in front of the Villa Cofresi with the after-party held at the hotel's bar. The race is a labor of love for the couple; the grassroots event grew from 70 competitors into one of our sport's premier events that now attracts a field of over 350. Last year Mo Freitas won. This year was supposed to be the 10th anniversary.
"It was a heartbreaker for us to cancel this one," said Mendez. "But we have no beach, there is no way."
The origins of standup paddling in Rincón are not unlike many other ocean communities. When Mendez and other locals saw clips and articles of people like Laird Hamilton standup paddling into big waves in Hawaii, their first thoughts were, "We gotta try that," Mendez said.
Before long, he had a SUP and was charging waves at Tres Palmas, the fearsome big-wave spot in Rincón that he had been prone surfing for decades.
Beyond the surf, Mendez and his friends began SUP racing. And just like that, the Rincón Beachboy was born.
The community eagerly embraced standup paddling from the start, and it's easy to see why: SUP was another way to experience the ocean. This broader passion dates back before any of today's surf culture existed. It's a point of pride that Rincón local and avid waterman Thomas Kosmall made while talking about his origins in the sport.
"What I always say is that people have been paddling here for thousands of years," said Kosmall. "Our approach is new but a Taino (native) village was right here, I guarantee you they were canoeing those waves out there."
I had just finished SUP surfing with Kosmall and his waterman partner-in-crime, Carson. The man's first name is Greg, but no one calls him that. Carson is a transplant, a self-described Texan lake rat with a fascination for riding waves, who moved to Rincón after his first trip here in 1991.
"I was renting a little shack right on the beach, it didn't even have running water," said Carson. "I was like a pig in shit, I came here just for a month but then I fell in love with it."
Carson fell in love with the culture, the waves and the people. He would eventually open up a dive shop and link up with Kosmall, spending the next 25 years embracing the culture based on the ocean and charging waves, no matter the craft.
The two invited me for a dawn patrol session at Tres on Good Friday. The waves were "small" that day, as in eight- to ten-foot faces small, but I was buzzing with adrenaline while paddling back out after catching a bomb by my standards, a "Baby Tres" wave by theirs.
These two had earned their spots in the lineup from a lifetime spent keeping the stoke alive by trying new sports and finding different ways to experience the blessings of Big Blue.
While the ocean may be their sanctuary, Rincón is their home. A home that was badly broken last September and one the community has worked tirelessly to put back together.
Carson recalled how everyone in Rincón pooled their resources and started working to clear roads, fix pipes and simply survive. And they had mostly succeeded; by the time I was there six months after Maria, the town of Rincón did not feel anywhere near the disaster zone I expected to find. While the lack of assistance from the federal government and mismanagement by local government officials had left other parts of the island in rough shape, Rincón had largely recovered.
"We just need vacationers and tourists down here," said Carson. "Them being here puts money back in the economy and that is like doing relief work. Just drink beer, that's all you got to do!"
On our last night in Puerto Rico, the lights went off in our motel room as a blackout hit our San Juan neighborhood. The darkness only lasted a few minutes before power was restored, but it forced me to reflect on living a few months in the dark. It was a futile effort. Puerto Ricans faced challenges the rest of our country knew nothing about. As of this writing, 20,000 Puerto Ricans are still without power and major blackouts continue to darken the island.
Editor’s Note: Since this article’s publication in late June, the Puerto Rican government announced in August that power was fully restored to the entire island.
The majority of Americans gathered only a few statistics of the destruction ticking across 24-hour cable news headlines, the media's version of the hurricane that detaches us from the daily fallout for actual people. Folks like Carson, Kosmall, Garcia, Lash and Mendez. Their stoke for the ocean and appreciation for their community fuels a determination to return it to that great benchmark of 'normal.' But despite all their work, it's not enough. They still need help.
Not necessarily the type of backbreaking help that put real Maria's mountain abode back together, but the help Carson was referring to. Just being on the island, drinking beer in their bars and discovering the rich natural beauty that runs thick through the people, the land and the sea.
"The bloodline is European, African and Tainos and it made a beautiful race," said Kosmall. "In spite of everything, the flame of the Puerto Rican people has never been extinguished."
He's not exaggerating. The Puerto Rican people are authentic and welcoming in a way that's far different from the rest of the country. It's not a quality to be measured with statistics or simplified in a news clip; it's only something you can know if you go.
A week on the Isle of Enchantment certainly dispelled any and all of my preconceived notions. In their place was an inspired sense of hope for the island, and a deep respect for a people who projected camaraderie, welcomed me into a passionate water culture and willed themselves back to normalcy by living up to their mantra: Puerto Rico se levanta.