I’m walking to breakfast on the sunny coast of Tenerife Island
when I notice a muted television in a hotel lobby projecting a news report about Chile. I stop to watch, having lived and worked in coastal Chile for 7 years— I consider it my adopted homeland. The news is frantic and sensationalist and I am immediately crestfallen as I silently learn that late last night, a massive 8.8 earthquake struck the south-central coast of Chile - triggering a series of 20-foot tsunamis and devastating hundreds of miles of coastline and small cities exactly where I used to live and work. My heart drops and my chest tightens. I am suddenly chilled and feel very far from home.
It’s the morning after my speech and presentation to a large group of Spanish university students in the Canary Islands. After 5 full days of preparations to present a lecture and slideshow at this conference about surfing and coastal environmental issues, I was looking forward to a restful day. An intense week of conference panels, research discussions and presentations had left me equally inspired, and exhausted, but now a different mix of feelings takes over.
After a minute of watching the television I learn that the earthquake and tsunami epicenter is located precisely in the small coastal village where I lived and worked, and where our non-profit organization Save The Waves Coalition still has a thriving environmental education and advocacy program in partnership with Waterkeeper Alliance. Years of work, surf, friends and community bubble up inside of me and I’m galvanized to immediate action. We must help. It’s obvious that the area is devastated.
I grab a bagel and coffee, but I’m not hungry. I feel queasy and slightly shell shocked. I hurry back to my room and start making phone calls and writing emails. My vision is clear and my goal is simple: through the nonprofit we’ll raise money, right now and as much as possible, to send a humanitarian aid mission to the epicenter of this natural disaster.
We know this region like no other international nonprofit and we have the local network of professionals, residents and supporters whom we can immediately mobilize. We are an environmental organization and not a relief organization, but in a time like this, so what? Our only real hurdle is that the affected area is completely cut off: coastal roads are closed due to the tsunami destruction and rubble; phone lines and cell phone towers are destroyed and no news is coming out of the area. We haven’t even heard from our program manager who lives in the town at the earthquake’s epicenter. Even the Chilean military is still clearing itself out of the earthquake rubble.
But just because we can’t communicate with the devastated region doesn’t mean we can’t help. So I get busy doing what I can: utilizing our network of supporters for our Chile program (which now, I fear, is in ruins) long days of hard work with my colleagues quickly leads to over $100,000 raised to directly fund disaster relief work at the earthquake and tsunami epicenter. We also establish a partnership with Waves for Water to import clean water filters for 10,000 refugees and another partnership with Reach Out Worldwide to immediately send a team of doctors, medics and medical supplies to the hardest hit region.
My heart is in the tsunami epicenter of coastal Chile, and somehow after 4 days of nonstop travel from the Canary Islands I manage to reach Chile via Madrid, London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Lima and finally Santiago de Chile. Less than a week after learning of this natural disaster on a muted hotel television in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean I find myself on the sweltering airport tarmac in beloved Chile, leading a team of 15 doctors, medics, firefighters and friends to a devastated region.
I’ve always been a hard worker. I grew up on a small farm in rural northern California, the son of a firewood cutter. As a child I spent my days stacking wood and holding greasy wrenches as my dad fixed his heavy machinery. My first paid job was at age 12 as a photographer’s framing assistant. After that, for over a decade I worked as a waiter and chef in a variety of world-beating restaurants. When I initially didn’t get in to UC Berkeley as an undergraduate at age 25, I didn’t give up. Instead, I appealed their admissions decision via short essay— and I got in. Cal took me to Chile, and 8 years later I’m now going back to Chile to utilize a lot of very hardworking people for a region devastated by the most powerful force on the planet: violently moving earth.
It would be the most humbling, exhausting and inspiring experience of my life.
Fresh off the plane in the quake-damaged international airport I’m met by my best friend and production partner. He survived the quake in Santiago, the capital city which despite being hundreds of miles from the epicenter still suffered major structural damages and seriously harmed its resident’s psyche. Everyone I see is slightly shell-shocked and jittery but inspired to help us get to the epicenter. Friends, former enemies, family and colleagues come out of the woodwork and offer every assistance imaginable. Before we leave the city, we’ve sent several truckloads of relief supplies on the road before us to the epicenter. Whether they get there is another story— reports of looting, road blocks and destroyed bridges filter through. Dozens of towns and cities are under martial law and the military is fixing roads, rebuilding bridges and reconnecting the communications infrastructure.
How did I get to this point in my life? Mentally unprepared, physically exhausted, emotionally fired up, and somehow exactly where I need to be. I am absolutely inspired to help fellow humans in their time of greatest need, and forced to be exceedingly productive in challenging circumstances regardless of what happens. Driving in my team’s caravan along the circuitous route to the disaster’s epicenter I’m overwhelmed, fearful and wondrous. I feel overworked and out of place and we aren’t even on site yet.
Goosebumps are crawling all over my skin as we drive. My mouth is dry from the past week of earthquake anticipation and post-tsunami preparation. It’s as if everything I’ve ever done in my life, all the hard work and physical labor, all the bookish studies and Spanish grammar lessons, they’re all fusing into one perfect tool on this humanitarian road trip into the unknown wastelands of a post-natural disaster landscape. We’re operating from a place of great strength and solidarity. This is what it feels like to be truly alive, responding without expectation to the needs of those less fortunate.
Arriving at the epicenter after a slow road trip full of backtracking and detours is beyond intense. A coastal area I had considered home for years is in total ruins and looks like a war zone. Military helicopters fly emergency supplies back and forth from battleships anchored just offshore. Bulldozers ply the major roads, pushing tsunami debris and shattered remnants of towns onto the shoulder like snow plows. Piles of junk and shattered trees lie everywhere. Cars are crumpled like aluminum beer cans, wrapped around trees 30 feet above the ground. Soldiers are busy pushing wheelbarrows full of mud and sand, directing traffic, unloading cardboard boxes, and building homes.
And the human psychological toll is worse than the destruction. Most people survived the earthquake and tsunamis because they knew to quickly get to higher ground. But everyone was terrified of aftershocks. Imagine everything you know to be stable and secure: walls, sidewalks, hefty trees, even the ground you walk on instantly turned into a violently shaking pudding— for hundreds of miles in all directions. All is changed, including you.
But my team and I are not here to luxuriate in reflection. We’re here to get work done and our vision is clear. We distribute clean water and water filters for 10,000 people at the earthquake epicenter. We assist the military in distributing food and temporary shelter. We start a community grant program to assist residents in rebuilding permanent structures and remaking their local neighborhoods, redesigning local economies.
With our team of doctors we assist over 1,000 people in need of urgent and non-urgent care. We leave behind dozens of duffel bags full of medical gear, supplies and medicine. Three weeks later, after I leave Chile and return to my home in California, our relief efforts continue and we employ a half-dozen community leaders to coordinate this relief work for a year.
Over two years have passed since that day in the hotel when I stared shell-shocked and terrified at the news on the television. That moment was the beginning of a realization that I’m grown up and fully capable of helping others in need. Sometimes I’m just a non-profit bureaucrat in a tiny organization, but through hard work and commitment I’m also capable of achieving exactly what I put my mind to, in exactly the place where I’m supposed to be. I can rise to and overcome any challenge facing me. This is something we’re all taught, or should learn, but true knowledge of one’s own agency is only catalyzed in the moment— as it was for me that morning in Tenerife.
describes his specialty as “making good things happen with great people.” More specifically, he’s a filmmaker and writer from Inverness, CA. He spends his spare time chopping wood for the coming winter.