By Chris Mauro
Matt George arrived back in Sumatra today. It’s been just over ten days since his last visit but the longtime surfer was compelled to take part in the relief efforts underway there after last week’s devastating earthquake. At LAX, he found a group of like-minded surfers heading down to lend a hand. “They said they weren’t exactly sure what they were going to do,” George explained while on layover in Singapore. “I was barely off the ground and I already had recruits…They have no idea how much this can change them.”
Then again, neither did George when he was headed down under similar circumstance in the wake of the huge earthquake and tsunami that struck Sumatra back in 2004. At the time George was rather adrift for a 43-year-old. On the surface he was a former pro surfer turned senior editor at Surfer Magazine. But loosen him up over a beer and you might be lucky enough to hear about his youth as Navy brat, his Navy Seal attempt in his early 30s, his misfortunes as a Stock Broker or his various episodes as a Hollywood writer and actor.
George admits to being a little eccentric. He’s certainly never short on passion. Rallying people is one of his greatest gifts, but whether he’s tapping the ghost of Winston Churchill or Bluto from Animal House hinges entirely on the audience. His range of delivery runs the gambit.
George got involved in the 2004 tsunami relief effort when Bill Sharp, an old magazine friend, was spearheading a small aid mission to Sumatra on his own dime. Sharp knew there were thousands of villagers stranded and hurting on the dozens of tiny islands just off the coast. The wave quality there makes that zone the Disneyland of the surfing world. He paid for George to come help and report on the relief efforts.
Upon their arrival they pressed officials on the ground for answers regarding the Mentawai chain of islands. Eventually they were told a boat would be sent up in a few days to “assess” what was needed. “Bill lost it,” recalls George. He was screaming, “If you want an assessment just turn on the TV! The place is @#%$! What else do you need to know!”
The experience was heart breaking for the two of them. Logic and emotion were in a constant state of war. “But we were both so stunned by how badly the government and aid organizations were stumbling around in the dark that we decided to take a few matters into our own hands,” says George. In order to get help where it was needed they formed a new relief outfit called Surfzone Relief Operations (SRO). “We found a wooden 85-foot pinisi schooner that we could charter to deliver the aid ourselves. Bill maxed out his credit card to pay for it.”
Perfect waves are what lure surfers from around the world to Sumatra.
A crew of surfers from the U.S. and Australia joined them, including Timmy Turner, a pro surfer from Huntington Beach known for exploring remote corners of Sumatra for months at a time and documenting his wave discoveries. But they still needed medical aid. Padang is short on doctors to begin with. Post-disaster they were impossible to find. George asked a clerk at his hotel what he’d do if his own mother needed medical attention.
The clerk told him to try the nearby University, and it was there that sisters Ulya and Patra Fasrini immediately volunteered to join the surfers. Ulya, a doctor, and Patra, a biological engineer, eventually convinced their friend Wati, a nurse, to join too.
In full veil, the women boarded the boat with the bare-chested tribe of western hedonists. Over the next six weeks the rag-tag little group completed three separate missions up the coast. They delivered 75 tons of aid to dozens of villages tending to thousands of people. “We learned effective relief work is pretty simple,” says George. “They don’t need energy bars. They need water, some breeding stock, and basic tools that will help them get their lives back.” The group delivered goats and chickens, fishing poles and canoes, water and medical supplies, but it was the women whose aid was priceless, as they were saving dozens of lives.
“Death was everywhere,” says George. “But they went straight into each village and got the job done.” Ulya and Patra returned to Padang emboldened. They quickly formed an organization called KOGAMI, which means “preparedness” back in Padang. With the help of George’s leadership, they arranged for the first tsunami-evacuation test ever run in the city. Some 15,000 people participated.
George debriefed Indonesian President Susilo Yudyono on the plan, and the President thanked all the surfers for their many efforts. “When he realized the entire staff behind the evacuation operation was made up of women he was astonished,” he recalls. KOGAMI even garnered some ink in Time Magazine.
A legacy of the surfer’s 2005 relief effort is KOGAMI, which was formed by the women who joined the mission. Patra left her job to become full time Executive Director. KOGAMI is among those spearheading the coordination of efforts between government and private aid agencies after last week’s quake.
To this day, George remains adamant about the huge role women play in relief efforts. “They’re tough and compassionate. And because they instantly connect with other women better than men, they uncover the real truth” ‘however ugly’ “much faster. Men are more likely to fall victim to the corrupt local leaders who sometimes want to control of all the aid. It’s easy abuse power in those situations. But women won’t stand for it. I don’t know how to explain the female ego, but I know that in those situations it’s not about them’ “it’s about their children.”
George and Sharp made their follow up SRO effort in August of 2005. In New Orleans their new team of surfers used Wave Runners to zip around and pluck stranded victims from rooftops and drop them into safe zones. “We were one of the first teams to reach the Superdome” George recalls, “which we had to flee in terror.”
When the Katrina response was just as slow, ineffective and corrupt back here in the U.S.A. George’s disgust with governments and large aid organizations grew. “We were witnessing a travesty at every level, top to bottom.” Still, SRO was dramatically swift and effective in New Orleans’ “so much so the Navy recognized ‘those surfers’ and provided them with inflatable boats to tow behind their skis, which allowed them to reach even more people.
Yet Sharp went deep into debt financing the two efforts, and his fledgling outfit was temporarily mothballed while he went back to supporting his family. So George, who is still single, formed Last Mile Operations, a new outfit with a simple mission: getting aid all the way to its intended target. “It’s that last mile where most relief efforts fail. That’s where LMO comes in.”
One month into his new venture, George was hiking the steep inclines of Kashmir, Pakistan, the hotly contested mountain area between India and Pakistan where the Taliban run free. A small California non-profit contracted LMO to get relief to thousands of earthquake victims. The job was rife with life-threatening challenges’ “the perfect proving ground for LMO’s effectiveness.
Matt George of Last Mile Operations tending to victims of an earthquake in the disputed Kashmir region of Pakistan.
The beardless, bald, and ghostlike George was the proverbial fish out of water in the forbidden hills where Osama Bin Laden is rumored to be hiding. “Naturally, all the aid was stuck in all the familiar places,” George says. “But with winter coming there was no time to wait, so we taught survivors how to make sturdy A-frame shelters out of the existing rubble, after bringing them tools to do it. Then we started carving helicopter pads into the steep hillsides so the supplies could come before winter hit.”
When local police found a California surfer building helicopter pads in a renowned hot zone they had plenty of questions for George. After providing a thorough debriefing he was taken to a nearby United Nations post. “Pretty soon we had all the helicopters we needed.”
The U.N. was eager to help George, and he was happy to become part of their team. But as the months wore on he grew equally disgusted by the corruption he saw hampering their larger efforts. Before joining the U.N. George had instructed a local factory how to make lightweight fiberglass rooftops. Nearly 100 at a time could be stacked in a single helicopter. But at the U.N. there was an outside contractor within an inside track. The contractor was getting paid ten grand apiece for his corrugated tin roofs. The locals fiberglass roofs were grounded, despite the fact that only ten of the heavy roofs could be delivered at a time. “I could go on for days about that kind of stuff…”
George stayed in Pakistan for eight months, providing shelter for thousands. Someone at the U.N. station in Islamabad tipped off ABC’s Nightline about “the surfer’ up there in the mountains helping the locals. Nightline producers did a full segment on him. He finally decided to leave only after he was advised that the Taliban put a price on him. Now he says it was probably for the best because “some of the contractors I had issues with would have been equally happy to see a bullet through my head.”
Today the most important element of LMO is educating a new breed of first-responders through his SERF (Surfers Education & Relief Force) program. George and his team teach fully accredited writing courses while on surfing trips to Sumatra, while simultaneously introducing students to new cultures and more effective methods of relief to those who need it. It’s all part of his ultimate dream to create a giant unarmed force of professional first responders. “I think that would do wonders for our country.”
Though he’s still quick to criticize governments, the U.N. and several of the large aid agencies, he stays in good graces with them. “I won’t relent when I see utter failures,” he says before pointing out that he’s made friends in those organizations that share his frustrations and appreciate his ability to deliver. In fact, he made this trip to Padang in his U.N. slacks and loafers. But his surfer’s force will be operating freely once he gets there.
“We don’t really need any more large aid organizations,” he explains. “We need smaller, more effective operations that can strike fast’ “there’s a big difference.”
To illustrate this point he paints a picture of the damage that would be done if LMO received a ten million dollar grant. “We’d be bogged down into complete bureaucratic hell” and that would make us useless. But with ten thousand dollars we can save a bunch of villages in the next couple of weeks. That’s the difference between goals.”
I last heard from George while he was on layover in Singapore. He was assessing the latest updates, formulating his execution strategy and undoubtedly bringing his new recruits up to speed on their plans. “The whole place has been leveled so basic shelter is the big need in and around Padang right now. We’ll hit the ground running, using bamboo and rubber from inner tubes to make flexible, waterproof shelter.”
As for when he’s coming back? “This story will be off the headlines within hours back in the U.S., but there are more than a million people in Padang and a lot of them will still need help, so we’ll be here for a while.”
2005-2006 was a life altering period for surfers like George. It started with tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia (left) which led to he and Bill Sharp (center) doing more after Hurricane Katrina. After that, it was was off to Pakistan where George proved the viability of Last Mile Operations.