Editor’s note: Bill Sharp, Matt George and Frank Quirarte went into the New Orleans parish with their PWC to assist the Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts. Below is the second installment of an interview with Bill Sharp by Surfermag.com correspondent Chris Dixon. The interview picks up with Sharp describing a rescue at a school.— Scott Bass
SURFERMAG.COM: So let’s talk about this school.
BILL SHARP: So there’s this school. You go down Louisa and it’s down across the railroad tracks. They’d been trying to get this family out of the school since day one. And they’re just saying ‘we keep asking them and we just can’t do it’. We had already seen these people and were dropping off a load at the ramp and we meet this local parish cop. This was his neighborhood and he was guarding the ramp. He said to us, ‘guys, my house is down there just a ways, is there any way you could go check on it for me?’
We said, ‘do you want to go have a look?’ And he says, ‘well, I can’t swim’. His name was Hilary Smith. Black guy — and that’s the whole thing. There was not a lot of local law enforcement faces out on the water. It was mostly the good old’ boys — the Bubbas. So we said to him, ‘hop on’ and we tore on down toward his house. And it was obviously very upsetting for him. His biggest concern was that his cousin might be inside. There was a gate and so we went to the house next door and put him and Frank on the roof so they could jump across the roof to his house. And then Frank took an oar and busted out an attic window. Then Hilary went in to have a look around and Frank went in a little while later. There wasn’t any loss of human life, but obviously it was pretty upsetting to see the place you’ve grown up all your life and your main possession was just — done.
SURFERMAG.COM: How far up on his house was the water?
BILL SHARP: Eight or nine feet. And after that was over, Shawn came over to us and said, there’s a situation over at the school and so we said, ‘hey Smitty, you’re a local boy, let’s go talk to these folks, will you go with us?’ And he said, ‘sure, I’ll give it a try, let’s go’. So we went over there and there was a group of law enforcement personnel, National Guard and Louisiana law enforcement trying to urge them to leave and it was getting a little tense. We brought Smitty in, who knew them all, and Frank and he went into the building to talk to them for a little while.
SURFERMAG.COM: Was the school flooded too?
BILL SHARP: The whole first floor was flooded. The second floor — it was just all filled with human excrement and absolute filth. They had an extended family of 19 people living in there. They had a generator and they had a tiny rowboat and had been going out and foraging the stores for anything they could find. They just didn’t understand what was going on. But Smitty went in and talked to them. They were really nervous because of the guns out front. We said, look, we’ll keep you all together and finally, it took about a half an hour and it was getting late in the afternoon and they said, okay, we’ll go. There was one guy who wouldn’t go who had some issues. But there was one guy who was diabetic, one who was paralyzed. Kids, mom, dad, grandma. It was crazy. And none of them could swim. We found an old abandoned aluminum boat and put eight of them in there, and put the bow on the jet ski. Then the rest of the flatboats of the law enforcement folks — they took in the rest.
So we just took them all. And it was amazing. As we got a few blocks down, they just started crying saying ‘thank you, thank you’. They didn’t realize how huge this was and how alone they were. They were just saying ‘thank you, thank you’. It was the greatest thing – ever.
SURFERMAG.COM: That’s unbelievable. What did Smitty say to get folks out of there?
BILL SHARP: He was the boy that they trusted. They trusted him because they knew him. He was there eyeball to eyeball with his brother from the neighborhood hands on shoulders saying, “Look, you can’t stay here, trust me — you’ve got to see how bad this is.”
SURFERMAG.COM: Was that the situation with a lot of people — they didn’t know how bad it is?
BILL SHARP: I think that’s the case with some. And I think in some cases, they’re also afraid of the people who are coming to get them out. There are just a lot of socio, economic and political issues in that town. And if locals can be led out by people they see eye to eye with, that makes a big difference.
SURFERMAG.COM: How did you guys feel in terms of personal safety? Did you get shot at?
BILL SHARP: We prepared ourselves and were prepared to respond with lethal force if necessary. There are a lot of sporting goods stores on I-10. But we didn’t run into anything. With all the law enforcement with or near us, and the military presence, that wasn’t an issue. Nor did we run into any militant people. It was just people either desperately needing help, or not quite ready to trust people. In other words, we didn’t take any incoming fire.
SURFERMAG.COM: You worked after the Asian Tsunami. Compare these two situations if there’s any way.
BILL SHARP: Well, (pauses to think) I’m not even sure where to begin. The human toll was much greater in the Tsunami — but it’s similar in that people needed help. And we as surfers with our knowledge of how to go in and get things done technically using jetskis or other equipment — and just our spirit of getting out there and getting it done and figuring out the situation on the fly. In both cases — here in the Tsunami it worked beautifully.
SURFERMAG.COM: Do you have an opinion on disaster relief early on?
BILL SHARP: It was the breaking of the levees that caused this. It wasn’t the hurricane impact. Most of the people lived through that. They were just sitting and the water suddenly came. They had a Tsunami when that levee broke, that stuff just went pouring in. But in the response to that, I don’t think they anticipated that would come in or that people would be responding violently to them. The first rule of rescuing is don’t become a victim yourself. And all I know is what I saw, and what I saw was a bunch of brave, selfless people going into a dangerous situation and doing amazing things to help people — and that was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. I can’t criticize. It was incredible.
SURFERMAG.COM: What have you learned from this?
BILL SHARP: You know, you can learn skills in life that can help people. And people need to help each other. It could be us next time, an earthquake in Southern California, or the next hurricane in Cocoa Beach, and we’re going to want someone to help us. If there’s a way that, through your own knowledge or skills, or bank account, but put it somewhere for sure where you know it’s needed. And there are non-conventional ways to help — even if it’s getting more socks to firefighters.
And here’s what I think. I think the surf industry needs to create a humanitarian assistance system. Look at all the money we give to the environment — Surfrider Foundation on down the list. Maybe we can help people too. Can SIMA or someone else give us all a centralized place where when something happens in the coastal region where people need help, that we can centralize our response as an industry? Not a multibillion dollar operation. But look, in less than nine months, the greatest coastal disasters in our lifetimes, if not in modern recorded history — have taken place. Shouldn’t the surf industry have a mechanism where we can get in there and do something — instead of just the four of us?