Jared Houston On Living And Surfing In Puerto Rico After The Hurricanes
“The noise was like something out of a horror movie, it was so scary”
While Jared Houston was born and raised in the mundanity of suburban South Africa, in 2013 he uprooted his seemingly stable life and moved with his wife and daughter to Puerto Rico. Bar the obvious culture clashes like language, locals and exotic cuisine, Houston’s new life in the Caribbean seemed just peachy. Then, late last year, Hurricane Irma stormed through the region, followed by the more intense Hurricane Maria, devastating Puerto Rico and nearby islands in the process. When the dust settled, the country was left in turmoil – lives lost, homes destroyed, and a life-threatening lack of food and electricity which continues today.
Houston and his family survived the ordeal, but it has been a seismic shift from the warm, laidback Puerto Rico they previously called home. The past four months have seen dramatic lows for the people of Puerto - and through very sketchy internet, we got in touch with Houston, to hear his account of life there, post-hurricane. It ain’t the stock-standard expat tale, to be sure.
MM: How are you holding up in the wake of Hurricane Maria?
JH: It was the most nightmarish experience of my life, but our house held up. I can't even begin to imagine what those who lost their homes went through. The pictures you see on the news don't do it justice. So many people died in the aftermath. It’s been months and we are still without electricity; that’s why it took me so long to get this interview done. We are living in the past with candles and gas, no phone reception where I live and certainly no internet. There is real need here. It’s tough, but I’m grateful that my family is safe. This island will take years to recover and may never be quite the same.
Can you describe what it was like being there during the storm?
The actual storm was terrifying. I was just in awe of what was happening. And the noise. The noise was like something out of a horror movie, it was so scary. We had all the windows and doors boarded up, so everything was really dark and we were sitting inside the house, listening to what sounded like some kind of wild animal screaming through a megaphone outside, feeling the house shake beneath our feet every few seconds. A huge concern was flooding as we’re completely surrounded by water in our area, but thank god, the estuary didn’t engulf our peninsula - but there were many people who weren’t so lucky. The next morning I couldn’t believe my eyes: everything you know, gone. It looked like something out of a movie. We were trapped on our peninsula for three days.
Was your home damaged?
Our car had a couple of smashed windows and we lost a lot of foliage, but our house didn’t suffer any damage. We still have a roof over our heads. But the next street over from mine was destroyed. At least 10 houses went down. One of the craziest things was the community action. At 7am the day after the hurricane, every member of the community was out in the street wielding machetes, chainsaws, axes, you name it - cutting down trees and power lines to open the way. I didn’t see emergency personnel in my area for at least 10 days after the storm. Everything was done by the community.
How hectic is it in Puerto Rico now - is the country back on its feet, or are there still big issues with food, water, communication and the like?
Things are still hectic. We’ve been without electricity for three months now and the other day they said its not likely we will have any until March. Life is different now. The sun goes down at six and we’re in bed by eight. We buy food daily and we cook on gas by torchlight. It’s like an extended camping trip, but in the tropics and in your own house. Food and water is ok, and communication is getting better but waste management and infrastructure repair is shockingly slow. Driving is pretty insane as there are no traffic lights up in the north, so it’s just these huge four-way intersections with no lights. It’s mental, but you adapt.
“One night, Natasha woke up to gunshots”
Any crime or looting during the hurricane or afterwards?
There’s this huge furniture store in town, and a week after the hurricane we passed by and were like, “Whoa”. The whole outside wall had fallen into the store and there was nothing left inside. Turns out the night before Maria hit, some maniac drove a massive 24-wheeler truck through the wall and emptied the place out. Crime got pretty hectic, which was something I didn’t consider. But drug trafficking stopped dead in the aftermath. So, you had heaps of meth and heroine addicts running rampant and ransacking joints because they were going cold turkey. Generator theft was a big one, too. One night, Natasha woke up to gunshots - a neighbour a few houses down had someone try to steal his generator and he opened fire in the night sky to send a message.
What has been the reaction in the Puerto Rico surf community?
It definitely had an effect, most notably less people in the water. A lot of the islands surfers and bodyboards got work with FEMA. There’s been a huge exodus of Puerto Rican's to the United States following the hurricane, searching for work opportunities or schooling for their children. Another thing that was pretty haunting were the empty lineups in the days following the storm. It was offshore and good for about a week, yet not I or anyone else could bring themselves to be away from their families or homes. The ocean was like a ghost town.
And the hurricane hit right before the European leg of the world tour.
Hurricane Maria basically put a stop to the world title hopes I had for 2017, which was a damn hard pill to swallow. The tour started well for me with a win at Teahupoo, and I’d backed that up with a fifth in Brazil. I was after one more four-star result and two more grand slams. Before the hurricanes even, I decided not to go to Sintra as I just couldn’t stomach the thought of an 8-week trip to Europe. I’m over that shit. I was in a really good headspace and I put all my efforts into Viana, Nazare an Fronton and I was confident that I could do it. But life had other plans. Hurricane Maria turned San Juan airport upside down and cancelled all flights for a week.
If the airport had been open, would I have left four days after Maria to make Viana in time?
Probably not. My best friend in Puerto Rico and Natasha’s father, Clay, died in September last year after three months in our care. That was the day before Viana started. I still have sponsorship agreements to honour and a passion to for bodyboarding, so I made the call to fly out with my daughter and give Nazare and Fronton my best shot.
It must have been hard leaving your wife behind to rejoin the tour.
Natasha supported me. She told me to go, but I know it was the hardest thing she ever had to do. Puerto Rico was destroyed - no gas, no water, no electricity, no communication - and she was just like, “Go, we need the money. Your income is related to this trip. Take Poe away from here, but I want to be here.” She had issues but she didn’t show them to me before I left - she’s an animal like that. It all happened so quickly: the hurricane, Clay’s death, my departure. There really wasn’t that much time to think about it. I cried a lot on the way to Madrid. Once I got to Portugal I wasn’t able to speak to her for a few days, and throughout the trip our communication was sporadic. Sometimes, someone would visit her and she’d record a voice message on their phone and they’d send it to me once they got back to the city. I’m very grateful to all the people who supported her while we were away.
With all this going on, how’d you manage to surf so well in the events?
I was pretty consumed by guilt. Nazare was shaky. When I got knocked out there by Diego Cabrera I was like, “Fuck this shit”. I didn’t leave my wife behind to face the zombie apocalypse alone for this. I knew Iain [Campbell] was going to win the world title in the semi-final, but I just couldn’t stick around. The wound was too fresh. I wanted that title this year more than anything else, and once I got to Europe and forgot all my troubles at home it became super apparent that there was no stopping him. Staying on the beach and carrying him up afterward would have been a fake effort on my behalf, and I respect Iain too much as an athlete and a friend to do that. By the time I saw him the next day, I could really tell him how proud and happy I was for him. I think he felt it, and that’s more important to me than having been there in the moment battling my own demons. Once that was done, I was like, “Ok, what’s my favourite wave in the world?” Fronton. And that comp was the most fun I’ve had in ages. I was with my daughter, my parents and surfing the best wave in the world with some of the world’s best riders. My troubles were pretty far away and I was just in my element. I didn’t even have to try. I need to find that place more often. It made me appreciate what I have right now with VS, Reeflex, Emerald and Vulcan. I live the dream and these guys pay me to do it, so I’m very grateful to them for that. They also supported me so much this year when I couldn’t even pick up a bodyboard, let alone ride one. They backed me and now I’m back. It’s only getting started and I can’t wait to go nuts this year.
You can help the people of Puerto Rico by donating to the Waves for Water Caribbean Hurricane Relief.