Wild Gustav Chase

We’re never going to let another hurricane sneak up on us again. After Katrina and all its devastating aftermath, it seems the entire nation is on guard every time a new tropical depression starts gaining steam off Africa. Take Hurricane Gustav, for example. As soon as the thing plowed through the Caribbean and made its path known in the Gulf, USA went on red alert. The Republican National Convention stopped its spin cycle for a day or two. George W cancelled his Minnesota speech (to the relief of some). And Louisiana successfully made the largest evacuation in the state’s history — a full 1.9 million people fled their homes and to higher and safer ground in anticipation of a tempest “far worse than Katrina.”

At least half of those 1.9 million must have grabbed their quivers and headed to the Gulf Coast of Florida, since by all accounts it was about the most surfers they’ve seen concentrated in one location. Panama City was the place to be, apparently, as everyone from Shea and Cory Lopez, Pete Mendia, Ben Bourgeois, Asher Nolan, Zander Morton and 500 of their fellow statesmen descended upon the normally sleepy Gulf town. “We got there on Sunday morning and it was flat,” says Mendia. “But by the afternoon it was waist high and by dark it was overhead. It came up super fast, but there was really only one spot and there were — no joke — about 2-{{{300}}} people out.”

Wave/weather guru Shea Lopez predicted the best swell and wind conditions would be overnight, and he was probably right. Monday morning proved to be more of a wild Gustav chase than anything, as the A teamers drove around for hours without being able to settle on one spot. “Oh, but we found the best spot in the Gulf,” says photographer Ryan Miller. “It was the only place with a real bend in the beach and it was cranking and straight offshore. Problem was, the sheriff closed the road and we couldn’t get to it. No matter how hard we tried, they wouldn’t budge.”

So, on the day when it was all supposed to go down, when New Orleans was supposed to go underwater again and the surrounding Gulf states enjoyed its once-a-year swell, nothing really played out as predicted. Gustav (fortunately) was more forgiving than predicted and — as of press time — didn’t seem to pack close to Katrina’s punch. The surf also failed to live up to expectations, as a highly anticipated sandbar wasn’t working in Panama City, which left them the options of closed-out beachbreak or a mushy left called Amazons that had — according to Miller — at least {{{200}}} people on it. “I heard some dudes claiming 15 feet,” says Mendia. “But don’t listen to ’em. At best, it was 4, maybe 6 feet.”

Still, 4 to 6 feet is much better than the normal 0 to 1 foot, giving the entire region reason to celebrate. “Score or not,” says Miller, “hurricanes just excite everyone around here. It brings the place to life.”

Looking at the forecast, it looks like there’s a lot more living to do. Hurricane Hanna is currently off the Bahamas, ready to rake across the surrounding islands and head straight into Flordia. As Mendia says, “It looks like we’re going to be busy this week.”