Surfing Hurricane Carlotta, and Helping Hard-Hit Mexican Towns

Anthony "Burrito" Zambrano charging Puerto before the storm hit.

On the morning of June 13, three of my WiLDCOAST colleagues and I set out in search of waves along the southern coast of Oaxaca.

Our planned conservation activities for the day had been canceled due to the rainfall, wind forecast and presence of Hurricane Carlotta off the coast.

Unfortunately the wind was sideshore and the surf was blown out. This wasn’t the case where the hurricane was creating great waves.

However, we made the most of the 2- to 4-foot point waves. After all, the water was 82 degrees, and every once in a while a fun wave would line up.

After a few hours, a couple of surfers from Cancun showed up. They were staying in adobe and thatch huts a couple of miles down the beach.

“You guys know about the storm coming?” I asked them.

“What storm?” they replied.

“There’s a hurricane coming,” I said. “You might want to seek higher ground.”

On the way back to Huatulco, we stopped in at Barra de la Cruz, famous for its world-class right point. My son Israel, 16, spent the week there with local surfer Pablo Narvaez and his family.

“Israel’s at the beach surfing,” said Pablo when we arrived at his two-story bamboo and wood house. “The surf is small anyway.”

A few minutes later, Pablo and I arrived at the beach facing the point and were shocked to see 6- to 8-foot-foot shorebreak on the inside with 10- to 12-foot waves hitting the point. The wind was howling.

“I surfed earlier,” said Israel, who spent the week living on grilled fish and stalks of bananas picked from the local huerta. “And then it started getting really gnarly.”

In 1997, Hurricane Paulina hit the area hard, Pablo said.

We hoped Carlotta wouldn’t be so bad.

When we returned to , I was happy to find my good friend Daren Johnson and his son Josh waiting for us at the friendly Hotel Mision de los Arcos. They had been staying at some rustic huts at a spot further south.

That afternoon, the National Hurricane Center upgraded Carlotta to a Category 2 hurricane. Winds were expected to reach up to 120 miles per hour.

Later that evening, Israel and I gathered at a café on the Huatulco plaza with Daren, Josh and my WiLDCOAST colleagues Eduardo Najera, Ben McCue and Zach Plopper along with a Swiss surfer-engineer we met earlier in the week while surfing.

The wind howled harder and the rain started pouring. An electrical post exploded across the street.

After a round of tlayudas, we hit up the local ice-cream shop for paletas and headed back to our hotel to wait out the storm.

“Since I have experienced a big hurricane in the past (Wilma, Category 5, biggest hurricane in Cancún history), I wasn’t that worried. However, I forgot about the mountains and rivers that were behind us,” Eduardo said.

The following morning, the rain stopped and the wind was back to normal speeds. We decided to check the surf. Cleanup crews were removing fallen trees from the roads. But overall in Huatulco, the damage seemed minimal.

“Despite hours of buildup and uncertainty, Carlotta whipped through overnight fortunately not wreaking too much havoc in the Huatulco-Salina Cruz region,” Zach said.

At the point from the day before, we were surprised to see that the tremendous storm surf had dissipated. However, the waves resulted in local beaches losing up to 6 feet of sand, which may make it difficult for sea turtles to nest in some areas.

Further north it was a different story.

“The hurricane was really intense. My buddies and I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Anthony “Burrito” Zambrano, of Imperial Beach who was in Puerto Escondido. 

“The rain started around 6 o’clock, then it started getting really windy. The windows were whistling, the lights went out and our room got flooded with water like 2 inches deep. We heard things getting blown around. The shingles from a bunch of houses and hotels got blown right off their roofs.”

Dr. Carlos Rodriguez, a veterinarian with the Mexican Sea Turtle Center in Mazunte, said: “Over 30,000 homes where affected from Puerto Escondido to Puerto Angel. Mazunte and the surrounding area was a mess.” 

“Roads were closed, so nobody could leave their towns. In places like Mazunte, the community has really pulled together. But … other communities like La Escobilla, Vainilla, Barra del Potrero, Santa Elena and their surroundings aren’t as lucky. Families lost their roofs, food, clothes and didn’t have electricity for 10 days, so there was no way to communicate.”

On July 8, Mazunte will hold a concert to raise money for the reconstruction effort.

“It has been a tough two weeks, but the communities are very positive they can pull through this mess,” Rodriguez said. “But there is still a lot of work to be done.”

Diane Castenada of WiLDCOAST has organized a fundraising effort to support those in need. Go here to donate.

Serge Dedina is executive director of WiLDCOAST, an international conservation team that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems and wildlife. He is the author of Wild Sea and Saving the Gray Whale.