This story by Jack Haworth originally appeared in our 2018 Winter Issue, on newsstands now!
On a September day in 2017, Rico Torres was herding cattle in Brazoria County, Texas.
It's a common activity in the cattle-dense Houston area, except on this particular occasion the circumstances were unusual; Torres was directing the beleaguered livestock to higher ground not from a horse, but a paddleboard.
"I'll be honest, that’s the first time I've ever had to herd cattle before," said Torres, the manager of Bayou City Adventures. "I have no idea why it worked, it just did."
Days earlier, the Houston area was battered by Hurricane Harvey and a non-stop deluge delivering more than four feet of rain. Floodwaters rose, streets turned to rivers and entire neighborhoods disappeared beneath the murky water. With his fellow Houstonians in need, Torres jumped to action.
"At first, police didn't want us to use paddleboards," said Torres. "But once the water got too high, the mentality shifted to [using] anything that floated to get people out."
Torres spent the next two weeks paddling door-to-door in several neighborhoods, rescuing children and pets via SUP while adults evacuated in kayaks. While unconventional, the maneuverability of the paddleboard allowed Torres to reach smaller areas that boats could not. Before long, a police officer was paddling alongside him on another borrowed board.
Then, as Houston still reeled from the effects of Harvey's brutal invasion, the news shifted focus to a new monster developing in Hurricane Alley. Its name was Irma.
After spending more than a week tearing through the Caribbean Island chain with wind speeds reaching 185 miles per hour, Irma headed for Florida. Looking straight down the barrel was Sue Cooper, owner of Lazy Dog, the popular paddle rental shop that has been a Key West staple for 20 years.
"This is my island," said Cooper. "It's where my livelihood is and I felt I would be of great help getting things back together quickly if I stayed."
After two decades, Cooper is no stranger to Florida’s storms. But as the warnings and forecast became more ominous in the hours leading up to landfall, Irma felt different.
"Most people don't have to go through that decision in life; 'What do I save?'" said Cooper. "You look around and realize not much is important except for you and your loved ones."
Twelve frightening hours later, Irma passed and the majority of Key West was spared. But with most residents and her employees evacuated for nearly two weeks, Cooper was left to clean up the mess.
Thankfully, flood damage to her shop was limited and after some hard work, it was back up and running. While tourism has taken a while to rebound, the tight-knit south Florida SUP community rallied together to help.
"So many people were putting together races, raising money and just asking what they could do to help," said Cooper. "The SUP community has been so supportive of us down here."
Unfortunately, not every SUP community bounced back so quickly from this year's slew of natural disasters. On the heels of Irma came Hurricane Maria—a furious storm that exploded from a tropical storm to Category 5 hurricane in only two days. Puerto Rico was right in its path.
Albert Lash is a local of the quintessential Puerto Rican surf town of Rincón, where he owns and operates three beachside shacks that rent SUPs. The town has a robust paddling scene and even won the SUP Magazine "Paddle Town Battle" in 2014. The idyllic destination was about to be turned on its head.
"I've never seen something like this," said Lash. "I'm a water person and go out when the waves are big, but this was unbelievably scary."
But the nightmare was just beginning. Over the next two months, residents would have to rebuild without the necessities most of us take for granted: electricity, water and food.
"I never felt any fear until about three or four weeks after the hurricane because we didn't have water and had no way to get any," said Aguadilla resident Kari DiPalma. "We were collecting water from drain pipes."
With little outside support, Puerto Ricans joined together. Neighbors helped one another clear trees, rebuild houses and simply survive. While the physical cost can be quantified, the mental toll cannot.
"If there are paddlers who want to help, get to know someone down here locally," said San Juan resident Pablo Cabral. "It would be incredibly valuable if paddlers came down with inflatable SUPs to get the children engaged and just make them feel a little bit normal."
And that's just what these hurricane survivors need: a sense of normalcy. If you're thinking about taking a trip in the near future, don't let the news deter you, Houston, Key West and Puerto Rico are open for business. As paddlers, the best thing we can do is pack a board, hit the road and see what we can do to help.