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Relief Is Hell

'It's just chaos. There's the black market and the government is stockpiling [goods]. It has made us pretty angry. This stuff is pouring in and warehouses are filling up and people are controlling it. Our mission is to get the supplies to the people who need it most. We're doing everything we can. We're just this little independent mission. Spirits are still high. Everyone has just been incredible. We're just a very, very happy ship, and we're doing great things.'

Dispatches by Matt George

WHEN DISASTERS hit in other parts of the world, some people read the news and do nothing, others send money. Then there are the odd few that find a way to get there as soon as they can and make a difference, putting their lives on hold and their safety on the line to help others.

Bay Area surf filmmaker Matt George is one such person. A former pro surfer and Lagerfeld model, we once used him for a cover photo shoot for a Metro "Best of" issue. His brother, Michael, and mom, Bonnie, live here in San Jose and have been getting his dispatches from Sumatra. We've published some of them here to give readers a firsthand view of a heroic rogue humanitarian effort that's going on as these words go to press.

Matt George.

The George family is no stranger to adventure. George climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro twice, once with special-education children. Michael George is a well-known figure around the valley who builds restaurants (Muchos, Pizza My Heart) when he isn't adventuring in Central America, the Caribbean or the Pacific islands. His father, who Michael says lied about his age to join the Army during World War II at the age of 17, surfed Hawaii's big waves when the George boys were growing up.

Their godfather, Buddy Penn, was a highly decorated Vietnam fighter pilot. Matt George wrote a screenplay about Penn, Vietnam's first African American squadron leader, that won top honors in 2001 from a black writers' association. He flew to New York to claim the prize, which the presenters declined to award after they noticed George was white.

George, 45, is a senior editor at Surfer magazine. He appeared in the 1998 TV series Wind on Water featuring Bo Derek and wrote the surf film In God's Hands (1998). You can consider the emails we've excerpted on these pages what you want: a blog, a family letter, unfiltered journalism, a screenplay in the works, a call to action. They are what they are and provide an unvarnished look at what it's like to be on the front lines of one of the great tragedies of our times.

— Editor

How to Help
* Visit www.surfaidinternational.org
* Email [email protected]
* Wire or transfer money to: Bank of America, Hands Across the Sea Matt George account # 07595-04361, routing number 121000358
* Paypal funds to: [email protected]

Dear Everyone, Lupo and Beau and Sam, Just back into port Padang. Successfully distributed over 35 tons of material to the outer islands of Sumatra. Organizing another two boats and headed back out with 40 more tons. Matt

Mike, On Satellite connection. Must keep brief. 40 tons of material set sail at dawn after storm passes. Flash flood again. must go. Obtained 15 tons of water on the black market. Matt

Dear Dan, Just back into the port of Padang, West Sumatra. Organizing another boat to head back out. Very grassroots. Under the radar. Government hasn't caught up with us yet. An appeal for funds would be fantastic. You can get all the bank info from Mike as well. Thank you so much for your effort and interest. It's still happening over here. Any help would be welcome and it would be going directly to people in need face to face. Gotta run. Got to meet a pirate about some black market fishing supplies. Matt George

Dear Mike,

No time. just got back into port at Padang in the 80 foot local fishing boat I chartered. Last two weeks delivering 35 tons of supplies and medical team to Northern Simeulu island off Banda Aceh. Illegal as hell. We were first ones in. Beat the military and the government jerks. Aid organizations staying in air conditioned hotels having silly meetings in Medan while we hit it hard and make a difference.

Wild sights. Dry reefs raised up five feet in the middle of the ocean. Floating bodies, women's clothing stuck in the top of fifty foot palm trees.

Headed back out against government wishes. I refuse to pay bribes. They want to shoot me. Apparently I have a price on my head. To hell with them. People need help.

Please let Picchetti Winery know that they single-handedly saved an entire village of three hundred people in the Alafan province called Sabar. It's the northern most bay on Simeulu. Water food and medical aid. One child, burned over 70% of his body, never would have made it if not for them. That alone was worth the whole effort.

To all others, my deep thanks. it's all going to the cause and wildly appreciated. Keep it coming. I am going to buy some more black market water now. Damned pirates.

Tell the boys I'll be home when I can make it. I know their thoughts are with us.

Love, Your brother,


BILLIONS OF DOLLARS and thousands of relief volunteers have flowed into South Asia since the devastating Dec. 26 tsunami took more than 160,000 lives. And so has a small group of surfer/journalists from California who have taken a special interest in a group of islands off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The islands, located just miles from the epicenter of the 9.0 quake that launched the tsunami, are "globally regarded by surfers as among the most perfect and desirable in the world due to their special reef alignments and exposure to distant and powerful groundswells," according to Bill Sharp, the project commander of the Sumatra Surfzone Relief Operation (SSRO). Since Jan. 13, about a dozen group members have traveled through the islands on two boats, distributing 37 tons of supplies and providing basic medical services. Most of the dispatches below were written by Matt George, who heads the operation's field command, and sent electronically to Sharp, who is based in Southern California and raising money for the relief effort. Others were transcribed by Sharp after satellite phone conversations with George.

—Matt Reed

Monday, January 17
Circumventing the Bureaucracy

After 48 hours at sea, the Mikumba and its fellow convoy ship Asia dropped anchor in East Nias.

Nothing had prepared us for the chaos that met us on the dock. Gunung Sitoli, the main hub for the delivery of aid materiel from Sumatra, had the distinct feel of a pirate town. Boats jammed the small piers, jockeying for space as ferries loaded more refugees who hoped to find better conditions across the channel on Sumatra.

We heard horrible stories of destruction and loss of life in the remote villages of northern Nias. And it soon became apparent that a thriving black market system was in place with agents of all sorts attempting to take advantage of the confusion and vying to take control of any and all aid materials.

Our refusal to hand over the Asia's precious 10 tons of materials to local officials proved perilous. As midnight approached, tension with locals was high. But just when riot and mayhem appeared imminent, the vice governor arrived with an armed entourage and escorted the Asia's supplies to a secure dockside warehouse.

With the guidance of the vice governor's office, we secured two trucks which were readied to leave at dawn overland to Lahewa and other remote villages on the northwest coast of Nias, in the trusted charge of a grassroots Belgian aid organization on a mission not unlike ours: to circumvent the confusion and bureaucracy and just get things done.

During the mayhem, we also covertly offloaded several hundred rescue buckets, 2 tons of fresh produce and 2 tons of fresh water to a known and trusted local captain who had family to the north and was sailing under the cover of night to make a direct delivery.

Our work done, we secured another volunteer doctor and bid goodbye to the Asia, which was headed for the mainland port of Sibolga with urgently needed helicopter fuel.

Under a star-sprayed sky we set sail for the remote reaches of Simeulue Island. Dawn brought engine trouble so we put in for repairs at the uninhabited Bankaru Bay in the Banyak Islands.

It was here that we came face to face with a grim reminder of this terrible tragedy. Here on this idyllic beach we came across the remains of a man curled up in a posture of terror, the surf licking at his heels. It was a sobering, very human moment to all hands. After a few quiet words spoken over him, we bid farewell to this lost soul and continued north.

Proceeding on, the sea became more and more choked with debris and more and more floating bodies were seen in various stages of decomposition. Our Australian journalist, David Sparkes, made it his job to call out a blessing to each body we passed.

At dusk, we just had time to reconnoiter a small fisherman's camp on a tiny island just north of the Banyaks. An eerie silence fell as a small team walked into the beachside jungle to investigate.

Evidence of a huge wave, probably 15 feet or more, was seen as we picked through the obliterated tumbled-down settlement. No survivors were found, but as we left, we could see large carrion birds circling the impenetrable jungle further inland.

With night falling, we returned to the Mikumba and shared a quiet dinner with all hands perhaps recalling the indelible image of that lost soul we found on the beach, his ravaged skull facing the sea, its features contorted into a silent scream of outrage.

Tuesday, January 18
'This Little Independent Mission'

The Mikumba dropped anchor at Katit Bay, southern Simeulue and deployed 1 ton of supplies. Our doctors had time to treat approximately 50 people for a variety of ailments, mostly respiratory infections and related pain issues.

Securing the necessary papers to travel in the waters of Aceh province, we then took on board a captain with the Indonesian Army for security against the pirates who are now plying these waters. We then set sail for the waters of Simeulue's Alafan region, an area just miles from the epicenter of the quake.

No reliable word has come from many of the remote villages of this region. As far as we can tell, the Mikumba will be the first relief boat to reach these shores.

Spirits on board are high and everyone is working together unbelievably well. To see Timmy Turner's mom walking though the surf, helping carry a 100-pound bag of rice ...

In addition to the Indonesian Army officer, the team has taken on another doctor and another ship's captain knowledgeable in these waters.

There are now 14 on board. Very well equipped for anything that might happen.

The Mikumba still holds 20 tons of supplies ready to distribute to the north of Simeulue.

There is plenty of aid arriving on Nias island. Can't say that Nias is fine, because it's just chaos. There's the black market, and the government is stockpiling [goods]. It has made us pretty angry.

Life is cheap, this stuff is pouring in and warehouses are filling up and people are controlling it. Our mission is to get the supplies to the people who need it most. And we will not hesitate. We're doing everything we can.

We're just this little independent mission. Spirits are still high. Everyone has just been incredible. We're just a very, very happy ship, and we're doing great things. Our first really warm thanks came today from the village and it was a really good feeling.

The Katit village head came out and shook our hands and you could see it in their eyes. They were so thankful.

The aid is pouring in, but these people aren't getting it quickly enough. When we sail up in our little boat and bring our little dinghy onshore and start unloading onions and potatoes and stuff ... they're stoked.

'Beautiful Pink Seashell'

Dawn found the Mikumba dropping anchor in the bay at the northernmost Simeulue point. Evidence of the monster waves that swept through the villages here was seen wherever one looked.

Uninhabited offshore islands were swept clean. On shore, 40-foot palms held household items in their fronds like a laundry-line from hell.

The main village was completely leveled. The river mouth, reshaped and made much wider, was choked with debris and sand. We saw a boat thrown high into the jungle canopy, its cabin windows winking reflections in the distance.

We were met on the beach by hundreds of villagers in a desperate state, and it was there we fashioned a crude refugee camp for the over 2,000 souls who ring this big azure bay. Acting quickly under alternating deluge and blistering heat, the SSRO team fabricated a large medical tent and another for distribution of aid supplies.

With the villagers in a desperate state, we organized the distribution of over 200 rescue buckets, 1 ton of dried fish, 1 ton of fruit and vegetables and sundry tools and materials for rebuilding.

From the mother ship, we also distributed more than 3 tons of supplies to a small fleet of wooden canoes that dispersed out to the other six or so villages surrounding the bay.

Work continued tirelessly until dusk. By day's end our medical team had treated over 125 injured and sick and set up a quarantine area for the six tuberculosis cases we discovered. It was an exhausted, sunburned team that arrived back at the Mikumba to good news. Our sister ship on this mission, the Asia, had successfully resupplied in Sibolga on the Sumatran mainland, procured another cargo boat stocked with additional aid material and was under steam to rejoin us by dusk the next day.

Special tribute should be paid to our doctors who provided tireless hope and care and inspired the warmest moment of the day. As our last dinghy was leaving shore for the Mikumba, the father of an infant who had been treated earlier for third-degree burns over most of his body had his only surviving daughter run to the water's edge to present our team with her most precious possession.

It was the beautiful pink seashell that hung around her neck.

Ant-Trail of People

There are several other villages surrounding this bay in the Alafan region, which we are calling Alafan Bay.

Tomorrow at dawn the SSRO team will visit one of the larger villages at the tip of the bay, which is said to be in much worse shape. There is no overland access and it can only be reached by vessel or on foot. We saw an ant-trail of people streaming off with the supplies, most of them having walked seven or eight miles through the jungle to make it to the site where we put on shore.

Another similar day is expected tomorrow.

The last of the produce was given out and it survived the long journey pretty well. About 15 tons of nonperishable supplies remain.

We are in poorly charted waters and that is why we must move so slowly. There are a lot of treacherous reefs and hazards. We have to have a lookout in the crow's nest and move at a careful pace. Fortunately there is little swell, as we are told if there is swell, moving around here by ship is outrageously dangerous. There is reason to believe that the shifts in the ocean floor may have produced new hazards to navigation.

The plan is to continue around the island in a counterclockwise direction, seeking the limited safe harbors ... although the area is very difficult and well known as a graveyard of ships. Resupply issues will also determine the possible future routing.

Wednesday January 19
'We're Staying'

After identifying two different villages inaccessible by a ship the size of Mikumba, we procured two smaller fishing boats and launched one mission in the morning that lasted until late in the afternoon.

We made landfall at a village of 200 people, all of whom were waiting on the beach for us waving their hands and thanking us, before we even landed. We quickly set up a medical tent which treated at least 152 people for the typical Stage Two disaster medical conditions including infections and respiratory diseases (children and women most affected). We also disbursed more than 200 rescue buckets, fish, food, cooking gear and spices. While the doctors worked their way through the sick and injured, some of the rest of us set up a volleyball court for the villagers and even gave some surf lessons in the shorebreak.

It was the first time since we've been here where the people seem to have recovered just enough to actually resume a certain semblance of happiness since the trauma of the disaster.

We then waved goodbye and set sail back to the Mikumba in the small boats, having heard of another village with problems just at dusk. Seeing the smoke from their cooking fires we proceeded in the Indonesian boats, made landfall and found yet another devastated community.

We wanted to get off the island before dusk because of the very high malaria risk here but we all had a meeting and we all decided to set up a clinic and stay into the night. Every crew member must be commended; we all sat down on the beach to talk about it, and we all decided that "we're staying."

We have just now made it back to the Mikumba in the boats by lamp light. We now await the arrival of our sister ship, the Asia, which is steaming north to join us here. They are due tomorrow evening.

We are going to continue our work, although we are beginning to run low on supplies. We have enough for perhaps two more villages, when it comes to food, water, tools, shelter and sundry supplies.

The medical team, however, is still fairly well stocked so we will stay in these waters until the last watermelon and the last shovel have been given out. We will stay until the last syringe has been used and the last suture stitched. We will not sail before then, and that is something we have all agreed on.

'They Have It Wired'

This crew is unbelievable. They have it wired. We have a medical clinic with an intake, pharmacy and outpatient up in 15 minutes. Adam and Timmy and Dustin and Kristian are on the beach and in 15 minutes we are giving each family a pound of fish, a tin of sardines and a rescue bucket, with a big line going down the beach.

Brian "Willy" Williams as the local guide/navigator has been irreplaceable in getting the vessel through these waters and up close to where we need to be. Achieving this mission to Simeulue would have been absolutely impossible without him.

Thursday, January 20
Overlooked Villages

One more big day for the SSRO crew.

We began early by visiting yet another village located on the banks of a river deep within Alafan Bay on the remote northern coast of Simeulue Island. Many villages throughout this region are constructed next to the fresh waters flowing from the hills, and while they are quite near the coast, they are often not actually visible from ships offshore.

This has led to many severely damaged villages being overlooked in early inspections all over the region. These watersheds are only scarcely above sea level and the tsunami's hydraulic forces had no difficulty surging miles inland up rivers and streams wreaking havoc along the way.

And just like in all the villages visited to date, we saw more people whose possessions had been swept away, leaving them without the means to obtain food or cook.

People are also stricken with all manner of post-disaster medical afflictions. In our ever-increasing efficiency we determined their needs and did what we could to satisfy them throughout the morning.

Today we were rejoined by the Asia, which we had not seen since parting ways in Gunung Sitoli a number of days back. After dropping helicopter fuel in Sibolga, operator Chris Scurrah boldly decided to resupply there and—with funding from Surf Aid—loaded up with 50 tons of staple supplies like water, rice and potatoes and made way for this corner of the world.

This arrival was rather timely as our original cargo is nearly depleted. Today also saw the first local response in the form of a TNI (Indonesian Armed Forces) gunboat and another vessel carrying the equivalent of a Civil Defense group.

We greeted them and were relieved that there were no political or bureaucratic hurdles—they seemed truly stoked we had been the first responders to the region. It was smiles and handshakes all around.

Will to Keep Going

Later in the day the Mikumba ventured outside of the bay to the west and dropped anchor off a small village. It was here that we came face to face with an unbelievable sight—the land was clearly raised a good four feet by the earthquake. The beach upon which the village was built an eon ago is now far inland, with a vast stretch of dry coral reef now separating it from the ocean water.

On Christmas Day, it would have been quite simple to land a small boat upon the sandy shore. Now, the formerly routine act of moving from land to sea is fraught with peril and one must wonder how this village can possibly remain viable. For the many surfers who have been wondering if the big geologic event might have affected the shape of breaking waves in this region, you now have your answer.

With some difficulty we made it to shore and went to work once again distributing supplies and administering medical aid. By the end of the day, we knew that the first phase of this operation was nearing its end. The last bit of what was originally 37 tons of food, water, shelter and other survival materials was given out this afternoon. With the local response teams now on scene and more supply boats on the way, we felt we could turn over operations in this spot to others and move on.

After consulting with Chris on the Asia, a plan was agreed upon to jointly complete a full circumnavigation of the island and try to improve the intelligence available about some of the more remote spots of Simeulue.

The Mikumba will head north to the top of the island and move clockwise around toward Sinabong.

Meanwhile, the Asia will head out the west and then continue around in the island counterclockwise past the wild west coast where there are believed to be quite a few areas where outside aid has still not reached.

We will then all rendezvous in Sinabong in a day or so, compare notes and develop the ongoing action plan.

The spirit of the SSRO team remains high, and the will to keep going is strong. As of now we are sailing north and a storm can be seen brewing in our path. This is not the first rough patch we have encountered, nor will it be our last. We will weather this storm as well.

Monday, January 24
'Very Grassroots. Under the Radar.'

Just back into the port of Padang, western Sumatra. Organizing another boat to head back out. Very grassroots. Under the radar. Government hasn't caught up with us yet.


500 Buckets

Water = 13500 liters
Fresh Fruit & Veg. = 6000 lbs
Dried Salt Fish = 4000 lbs.
Sugar = 20 bags
Salt = 200 bags
Cooking Oil = 50 cases
Sardines (canned) = 40cases
Corned Beef (canned) = 54 cases
Coffee = 5 cases
Teabags = 6 cases
Frying Pans = 400 pcs
Plastic Cups = 800 pcs
Plastic Plates = 800 pcs
Can Openers = 6 cases

Tarps = 251 pcs
Blankets = 500 pcs
Woven mats (tikar) = 490 pcs
Lamp Fuel = 1000 liters
Spare Lamp Parts = 200 pcs
Sanitary Napkins = 6 cases
Underwear = 1000 pcs

Small tool kits = 300 sets
Fishing Nets = 245 pcs
Nylon Cord = 600 pcs
Hook Sets = 1 cases
Duct Tape = 9 cases
Hacksaws (2 m) = 20 sets
Metal Bar & hammer = 20 sets
Shovels = 150 pcs
Hand saws = 150 pcs
Rope = 16 coils

School White Boards = 30 pcs
White Board Eraser = 120 pcs
White Board Marker = 30 boxes
Reading Books = 2300 pcs
Math Books = 1500 pcs
Drawing Books = 800 pcs
Erasers = 540 boxes
Pencils = 1500 pcs
Pens = 2180 pcs
Crayons = 800 pcs
Rulers = 1500 pcs
Goats = 3 pcs
Chickens = 6 pcs

PLUS: 6 Seventy-gallon water tanks with pumps, generators, PVC pipes and fittings

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the January 26-February 1, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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