Aug. 26, 2011 — -- As Hurricane Irene powers toward the United States' East Coast full force, people from North Carolina to New York are fleeing their homes as hospitals, nursing homes and entire towns are evacuated. But as most rush to escape Irene's destructive path, another group enthusiastically pursues the dangerous storm—hurricane surfers.
No doubt these thrill seekers have taken a page from Jimmy Buffett's "Surfing in a Hurricane." He sings, "I ain't afraid of dying/I don't need to explain/I feel like goin' surfing in a hurricane.... The impact zone is calling out my name."
"The risk, the excitement factor … getting really good waves is addicting," said hurricane surfer Shea Lopez. "It's something that's uncommon. I couldn't be any more excited for any day of the year."
This weekend, Lopez, 37, will be looking for areas where he can catch waves between 10 and 20 feet. He said waves could near 30 feet in some locations. He has been in Virginia but is monitoring the storm up and down the East Coast, figuring out where to go next to capitalize on the rare swells.
"It's our only chance as East Coast surfers to get large, powerful waves like in other places in the world," Lopez said. "It's exciting being around the hurricane. You can't help but get caught up in the drama."
This week, the 49th annual East Coast Surfing Championships are underway in Virginia Beach, Va. As one of the biggest surfing competitions in the world, this weeklong event draw nearly 1,000 surfers every year who travel from as far as South Africa and New Zealand to compete.
Today, the competition barrels on at double speed to try to finish before conditions become too dangerous to continue.
"The primary concern is for the safety of the competitors and spectators," said Kevin Gaydosh, spokesman for the competition. "There's nobody that has a healthier respect for the water than surfers."
The championship plans to continue through Friday, suspend competitions on Saturday and resume on Sunday.
Paul West, president of the United States Surfing Federation and surfing director for the competition, is running a hurricane chasing photography contest in which a photographer and a surfer team up and try to get the best picture of hurricane surfing. West, however, wants it to be clear that this is a risky undertaking.
"You have to be careful and you have to be experienced," West said. "You do not need to go out there unless you are experienced, and we do not encourage anyone under the age of 18."
As many of the surfers finish competing, including Lopez, they are leaving en masse to chase the hurricane, despite seven states' declaring states of emergency.
Mike Watson is a meteorologist and East Coast manager and forecaster for Surfline, an online publication. As a surfer, he said it is important to differentiate between chasing an actual hurricane and chasing hurricane swells, which are the waves created outside of the direct area of the hurricane. Watson thinks swell-chasing is safe for experienced surfers, but is much more wary of hurricane chasing.
"I wouldn't recommend to anyone to chase a hurricane," Watson said. "You need to be wise and get out of the way. They're very dangerous and erratic … and not to be messed with."
He also emphasizes that it's not necessarily the wind that does the most serious damage, it's the water.
"Water is incredibly heavy, so when it's moving at you it has a lot of force behind it," Watson said. "That's where the damage comes from. It's that water that kills people."
Even though he understands the risks, Lopez is not backing down.
"We look forward to these hurricanes," he said. "People die every day and it's a fact of life with these storms. But there will probably be more traffic fatalities and direct wind effects and storm surge from Irene [than deaths from surfing accidents]."
For Lopez, the thrill of danger and passion for surfing large swells began when he was a child and his surfing father would come and take him out of school on the pretense of a doctor's appointment so that they could surf hurricanes together.
"That was the highlight of my childhood, waiting for those storms to come," Lopez said. "I've been waiting on these my whole life."