On May 23, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its official Atlantic hurricane season outlook for 2013. The forecast called this year "active or extremely active," with roughly 13 to 20 named storms, seven to 11 of which could become hurricanes. Of those, three to six hurricanes could be classified as "major" -- Category 3 or above -- with winds of 111 mph or more.
The past two years have shown exactly how menacing and tragic a Category 1 hurricane, a la Irene and Sandy, can be.
In August 2011, Hurricane Irene wreaked havoc on North Carolina's Outer Banks, where it first made landfall on the U.S. mainland, not only flooding homes but also breaching parts of Hatteras Island. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy bought $72 billion in damage to New York and New Jersey. According to the Centers for Disease Control and the NOAA, the total number of fatalities from both storms was 162. The East Coast is still recovering.
Surfing on the right coast is unique in that the source of joy for wave riders can bring such misery to others.
While the West Coast thrives on waves created by storms in the North and South Pacific, because most weather in the Northern Hemisphere moves from west to east, the East Coast often has to rely on short bursts of energy that come out of places like the Ohio Valley. While surfing on the East Coast has its draws -- less crowded waves, punchy beach breaks, dynamic changes of seasons -- surfers from Florida to Nova Scotia take advantage of hurricane swells as a relief from flat summers.
In September 2011, the ASP World Tour's Quiksilver Pro was pulled off in New York's Long Beach in flawless conditions thanks to Hurricane Katia, a truly "perfect storm" that never threatened land.
But meteorology is rarely ideal. The recent devastation wrought by these storms has the surf community looking at the 2013 season in a somber light.
"Hurricane season has always been a bittersweet thing for me," says Brett Barley, an Outer Banks pro from the remote town of Buxton who makes his living filming big winter barrels off North Carolina. "We have been hit hard the past two years in a row. I'm really not looking forward to a third year of that. Sure, we have waves during hurricane season … but honestly the destruction far outstands the reward."
For decades, the Mid-Atlantic was barely brushed by hurricanes. For the most part, that part of the coast experienced solid surf while Florida was pounded -- by Andrew in 1992, Frances and Jeanne in 2004 and Wilma in 2005. Conversely, when Sandy produced record waves in Florida, the Jersey Shore and Long Island saw more widespread damage than anything the Sunshine State has ever endured.
When I was 10 years old, in 1985, my parents brought me to Seaside Heights, N.J., right after Hurricane Gloria had brushed the coast. The destruction had been minimal, but massive mountains of water exploded just beyond the boardwalk. And later, I saw epic photos of the surfers who challenged that historic swell.
I was thinking about that earlier this week as I stood on a wooden pallet above the puddles that had formed in an abandoned lot after the spring rains in Ortley Beach, N.J.
Joe Magino, who organized volunteer groups to gut hundreds of homes and even rebuild a few in southern Ocean County, was handing me Red Cross cleanup kits that were no longer needed in my community on and around Long Beach Island. I relayed the kits to Cassandra Vitale, leader of the "Bucket Brigade" (named for the thousands who came to empty homes that were inundated with sand from Sandy) who was stacking them in a trailer.
Long Beach Island had taken a beating. But after a lot of hard work, we were mostly ready for tourist season. Ortley was another story. It has been more than eight months since the storm, and even though President Barack Obama and Gov. Chris Christie celebrated the reopening of the boardwalk over Memorial Day weekend, towns like this are years away from resembling anything close to normal.
After all, this is the East Coast, where the best swells are associated with any variety of wild weather event -- winds, nor'easters, hurricanes, even blizzards. Though the average low-pressure systems we get from October to May tend to produce better waves than hurricanes, as surfers, we're wired to root for every tropical disturbance in the Atlantic.
But no one, surfers and nonsurfers alike, relishes a landfall. Surfers know, from studying atmospheric anomalies like wind speed, storm surges and which of the global forecast models has been the most accurate that season, exactly what these violent weather events are capable of. They also know that once a tropical cyclone hits a major landmass, its wave-creating potential has significantly diminished.
Nine hundred forty millibars. That sounds like a different language, but as my wife and I evacuated our home and community with our then 6-month-old baby, I was well aware of what 940 millibars meant. It meant the lowest pressure ever recorded in the Northeast. It meant the ocean could literally swallow our barrier island home in Ship Bottom.
In Florida, Sandy didn't make landfall or flood the state, but it brought perhaps the biggest swell it had ever seen. Truth be told, at the swell's peak, the waves were too big for most spots, but a few guys did manage to snag historic lefts.
Meanwhile, parts of New York and New Jersey were forever altered. Sandy not only severed North Carolina Highway 12, which connects towns like Rodanthe, Avon, Buxton and Hatteras with the rest of the world, but it also left it vulnerable to flooding through the active winter.
"Between Irene and Sandy, our island was shut off from highway access a total of almost four months over the last two years," says Barley. "That's four months of lost business for people on the island, four months of three-hour trips to the doctor, dentist and five-hour trips to the airport, four months of extreme inconvenience for the thousands of people that live here. So is one, maybe two days of good waves worth it? Not in my book."
Barley says this despite the fact that his livelihood depends on putting himself in deep barrels.
Veteran Florida pro surfer and shaper Matt Kechele has seen his share of waves, and damage, from these spinning beasts. For the most part, "Those who have chosen to live near the ocean or on a barrier island know what they've signed up for," he says.
He counts himself in this group. As Sandy passed east of Florida, Kechele was chasing massive surf on a personal watercraft with 12-time ASP world champion Kelly Slater, whom he mentored when Slater was a kid in Cocoa Beach.
"The early [storm prediction] models were calling for landfall in New Jersey and New York a week-plus out," Kechele says. "By the magnitude of the swell, we knew the Northeast was in for a doozy."
This summer and fall, people aren't running from the coast. Barley hasn't moved his young family out of Buxton. Kechele didn't sell his place in Cocoa. Surfers aren't going to stop seeing the bright side of hurricanes.
"We have chosen a lifestyle to be closer to nature than most," says Kechele.
Given this reality, it stands to reason that surfers have been on the front lines of recovery efforts. Kechele was just one surfer from Florida who loaded up a truck of supplies and headed north on a relief mission. The international aid group Waves for Water arrived two days after Sandy and has put $1 million into community initiatives in New York and New Jersey.
Less than two weeks into the season, the Atlantic Ocean has already seen its first storm. Tropical Storm Andrea formed in the Gulf of Mexico, sloshed into Florida's Gulf Coast on June 7 and moved up the Eastern Seaboard, bringing an overhead south swell to the same coast that Sandy had battered.
"I know the East Coast will be looking at this hurricane season differently," Barley says. "But the storms will come whether we are ready or not.''