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INTERVIEW: Bill Sharp and Frank Quirarte, on PWC, Aid Hurricane Katrina Victims & Rescuers

| posted on July 22, 2010

On Wednesday, September 7, Surfermag.com caught up with Bill Sharp and Frank Quirarte via cell phone as they were driving from New Orleans back to Houston to catch their flight back out to California. Here they give part one of their heavy account of the Surfzone Relief Operation’s trip to New Orleans.
–Chris Dixon

SURFERMAG.COM: Bill how did this whole thing get started?

Bill Sharp: It started… I just got an email from Shawn Alladio at K-38. She cc’d me on an email blast about getting watercraft ready

What happened was that immediately after the hurricane, the FEMA California Task Force, made up of the elite teams from most of the county fire agencies, took off on Monday night on a C5 transport with their trucks at March Field. But they couldn’t bring their jet skis. So there were no Personal Watercraft — which turned out to be invaluable. So Shawn went to work organizing — getting the donations from Yamaha and getting them shipped to the closest drop point which was Baton Rouge. She just kind of put out this call for people qualified for driving skis and logistics and I just said, I’m in.

And you know Frank Quirarte of Mavericks Surf Rescue, he came onboard, and then Matt George representing Surfzone Relief Operations — the four of us created our own sort of strike team. That assignment came late Thursday night. So I spent all day Friday working the logistics of how to make it happen. We had eight jet skis in Baton Rouge and so that’s what I had to figure out — how to get them and us into New Orleans.

So the plan we came up with was, we had to fly to Houston which was the only place there were enough flights coming. I found a Hertz guy in downtown that was really sympathetic – he reserved two big Ford pickups and brought all the tow gear with us. This was at like, 2AM Saturday morning. Then Frank and Shawn came in later that morning. We drove to Baton and were planning on spending the night there. But we kept getting calls from rescue task force guys — the Menlo Park (California) Fire crew was who we were originally working for. They would call us and say, look, we need all these supplies So we were stopping about every hour wherever we’d find a Wal-Mart. They’d say, we desperately need socks. We need underwear. We need knives, tools , oil and food and just all this stuff. They came in lightly prepared, as first responders right after the storm, and had no one to re-supply them. Then we went on to Baton Rouge and picked up the two PWC trailers.

SURFERMAG.COM: How was the damage in Baton Rouge?

BILL SHARP: Baton Rouge seemed fine to us. I mean there was minor wind damage and some signs knocked over. It wasn’t until you got over that causeway over the swamp you’d start seeing real signs. Then when you got into the last stretch before the airport, then you just went through a mile or two and after that everything was just f–ed up sideways. I mean just fronts of buildings ripped off. There was a self storage center where all the walls were peeled off and everyone’s belongings were hanging out. Bricks on top of cars, cars abandoned everywhere. It was just like a war zone.

SURFERMAG.COM: Did it remind you of the areas where the Tsunami swept in?

BILL SHARP: Yes and no. There wasn’t any standing water on the outskirts and in the tsunami you didn’t have any wind. Here they had at least 120 mile an hour winds. But it was a little bit odd because you’d have one neighborhood that was just demolished and then you’d go a few blocks down and it would look relatively all right. It looked like there were areas where these micro bursts of wind just went berserk.

So we rolled in and there was obviously the National Guard blocking access but we had all the authorizations.

SURFERMAG.COM: So you went in to support Menlo Park Fire?

BILL SHARP: We ended up going in and supporting the entire California task force. The San Diego lifeguards — basically the whole Mission Beach lifeguard squad was there walking around in trunks. Then we were working with Orange County a lot too — so there was a full Southern California surf presence.

SURFERMAG.COM: How hard was it find everyone in the middle of the night with no power?

BILL SHARP: Well, we get there and we’ve got these really sketchy directions – like, by the airport and turn left. No power. No anything. All the street signs are down and no one’s in the road. It was a crazy third world war scene. And I had brought every piece of gear known to man, so we had a big searchlight and wandered and found this one corner and found 200 cops..

Sunday morning we’re at Zephyr field – which is the Saint’s practice field. There were helicopters coming in; Blackhawks, Chinooks, every 30 seconds in and out. They have an indoor practice field with a full regulation sized air conditioned football field. So that’s where we slept. The A/C had just come and the lights were spotty. But there were thousands of rescue workers and National Guard sleeping under one roof in cots. It was wild.

From then on, we woke up every morning at 5:30 and would get ready and wait for the task force orders to come down. We were first familiarizing all the Task Force guys with the equipment and then just stood by to do whatever they needed to be done. I can’t say it enough, those guys are the pros, and we were just lending a little hand.

SURFERMAG.COM: So what days were you on the water?

BILL SHARP: Monday and Tuesday. On Sunday we did a whole other Road Warrior run to pick up supplies and four more skis from Friendly Yamaha back in Baton Rouge. Those guys were awesome — they spent days helping us get ready.

SURFERMAG.COM: What would happen if someone was found?

BILL SHARP: They’d say, okay we found someone and then we’d tow over an inflatable boat and load it with survivors and take it to launch ramps — which were the freeway onramps.

SURFERMAG.COM: Let’s backup for a second. When did you first see the actual flooding and destruction and what was your thought when you got to that spot and actually looked out?

BILL SHARP: The command post was kind of on the west side of New Orleans and there’s this one causeway — the Lake Pontchartrain causeway — it’s kind of the highpoint and then everything east of there is just under four to twelve feet of water all the way across. And the freeway was underwater. Our main assignment was on the east side, kind of northwest of the French Quarter there’s just the gnarly projects. The sort of underprivileged people of the community and there are a lot of spooky old houses — and it abuts right up to an industrial zone just with petrochemicals and all the nasty stuff. So it’s a major hazmat situation.

SURFERMAG.COM: We’ve heard reports of how nasty the water was…

BILL SHARP: The water was unspeakable. Just unspeakable. There was just a sheen of chemicals on top and sewage, decomposing everything. I mean it’s very difficult for people who try to live a water based lifestyle and understand the pristine joy of just getting in the water — that wasn’t the case here.

SURFERMAG.COM: What did you wear to keep the water off?

BILL SHARP: Well, the fire department had dry suits, but it’s 95 degrees and incredible humidity and those suits are impossible to wear. So we went to Academy Outdoor Shop in Baton and just bought up a bunch of chest waders for everyone. It wasn’t the most stylish ensemble but it got the job done — because you did NOT want to touch that water. One of the things we came upon was there’d be guys in the National Guard there but they didn’t have waders and didn’t want to go in that water. So Frank would just go, no problem. He’d jump in and carry them on his shoulders — victims — evacuating them to the flat boats. We were doing whatever we needed to do — improvising on the spot.

SURFERMAG.COM: How many other rescuers and crews were there outfitted like you guys?

BILL SHARP: We were the only civilians to be found.

SURFERMAG.COM: There was a helicopter shot on CNN of jet ski guys. But it wasn’t a big crew of eight in one place.

BILL SHARP: Well, you don’t take eight out at a time, you split up. And that’s the great thing about the jet skis.

SURFERMAG.COM: Did you suck anything up in the impellers — trash and stuff?

BILL SHARP: That was a huge concern. We didn’t foul ours it but we did spend a lot of time helping some of the other people clear theirs.

SURFERMAG.COM: What was sort of the drill when you’d pick people up?

BILL SHARP: The 10 Freeway at the Louisa Avenue off-ramp was our base. There were probably six different areas where the California rescue teams worked. And it was kind of a gnarly area. There was National Guard there with these amphibious trucks. So you’d bring in the boats up until it was about six inches deep and they would drive those trucks out and load people up. You didn’t want them to even get their ankles wet in that stuff.

SURFERMAG.COM: Did you see any dead bodies?

BILL SHARP: Yeah. Three or four. Frank saw four.

SURFERMAG.COM: What was your overall impression rolling through this destroyed city?

BILL SHARP: It was just — the scope of the disaster you cannot possibly understand until you’re there. I mean all these neighborhoods that are flooded — you can’t just drain it out and rebuild those houses. They’re history. They’ve been soaking in hazardous materials for days. It’s done. You can’t just call the little remediation service and hose it down. All that stuff is going to be bulldozed and it’s going to take a long time if ever to make those areas liveable.

And you know, it’s such a huge area that’s underwater. It’s just amazing. Here I’ll put Frank on to talk about it.

SURFERMAG.COM: Frank, I was asking Bill his take on the scope of things and what the effect was on you guys personally.

FRANK QUIRARTE: I was completely, completely blown away. We were talking about it on the way down that we would have to prepare ourselves for the worst thing we probably possibly would ever have seen in our lives. It was worse than that when we got there. Because then you add the smells, the bodies and the devastation and you can’t help but feel for these people.

I mean when we went out yesterday (Tuesday, 8 days after the storm), there was a family in this one school and they wouldn’t come out. They thought that the water level was going to drop in a couple of days and they were just going to continue on with their lives. But they hadn’t seen what we had seen. I went and stopped and talked to the dad, who was their designated leader. I was saying, “Dude, I have kids, you have kids, let’s get the kids out.” He was just like, “ …no, they’re staying with me.” And I was just like, “fuck, we can’t leave.” I’ll let Bill tell you that story, because he can tell it more dramatically than me. But personally, that just set the tone for me the whole day, not that I wasn’t motivated, but after that, I was just saying, let’s get absolutely as many people out of here as we possibly can.

SURFERMAG.COM: Did you go to the Tsunami zone with Bill and Matt (George)?

FRANK QUIRARTE: No, I worked in the 89 earthquake in San Francisco, but it was dry and you could walk around. Here, you weren’t walking anywhere. You launched the skis into an oil slick, and in every corner where the water didn’t circulate it was just like dead things, shit, crap, stuff floating around. It’s everywhere. And there are water hazards – because you’re just cruising down residential streets. We were hauling ass out to take this cop to his house, and we hit a car and went flying over the top of it and caught air. That’s just standard out there. The cars are floating under the surface and one minute they’d be there then the next gone. There were semi trailers — you name it and it was floating. Just amazing.

SURFERMAG.COM: What was the heaviest thing you saw?

FRANK QUIRARTE: A woman had committed suicide — hung herself over this railing. Her arms were all spread out super gothic. I was with these detectives and they went and at least covered her head up. You cannot — that stuff can’t sink in and not affect you in some weird way. I lay on my cot last night and couldn’t sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night and just mulled over our whole day — the good and the bad. It was heavy. Super heavy.

SURFERMAG.COM: How many rescues did you pull off?

FRANK QUIRARTE: Bill and I were counting and we brought in over 50 people just yesterday. Boatloads dude, boatloads. And I didn’t even go into any houses until the end. We were just pulling people out of the windows and stuff. But I had an oar and was breaking into a guy’s attic. Bill went in and I went in after him. I swear to God it was 150 degrees in that attic — easily, like going into a sauna. And I’m saying oh my God, these people have been in these places since the storm.

SURFERMAG.COM: So they had been up in that hot attic since the storm?

FRANK QUIRARTE: It was crazy dude. Crazy shit. The only place to get away from the water was an attic.

SURFERMAG.COM: What condition were these people in?

FRANK QUIRARTE: Brutal. Emaciated. They’ve had no freshwater, no sewers. Some had a little bit of food. A lot of diabetics. A lot of people who were on medication — older folks. The first people we took in were a father and two sons, and the dad was a heavyset guy, a couple of hundred pounds and he was diabetic and just brutalized. He hadn’t had insulin in like eight days.

SURFERMAG.COM: How will this affect you and your way of looking at life in the future?

FRANK QUIRARTE: I’ve had a lot of personal tragedy in my life and I’ve always tried to learn from it. This is just one more thing to appreciate what I have. My family’s healthy and happy and I appreciate the dry ground I live on. Maybe if some other disaster hit us then someone could come in and help us the same way we were helping those folks. And this place was black as could be. There’s not a white person anywhere. The racial lines there were laid down. And yesterday we were with the white good ol’ boy cops, but yesterday after one really heavy rescue they were like, awe it feels good don’t it?

Second half installment: Bill Sharp describes the heavy rescue at the school…