A cut above in storm prep

Posted on Written by David Shaw

marina1As Sandy bore down, these three marinas took radical steps that minimized their losses

The fury began Oct. 22 when meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center in Miami picked up a tropical depression forming off Nicaragua. At first blush, there was nothing unusual about it, but in a matter of hours the low-pressure system strengthened into a tropical storm, the 18th of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season.

A week later, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut would take a decimating hit from a vicious post-tropical cyclone dubbed Superstorm Sandy. On its way up the East Coast, what was then Hurricane Sandy combined with another strong low and quickly morphed into one of the largest storms ever to form in the Atlantic Basin. A high-pressure system that stalled offshore turned the storm northwest, and it made landfall early on the evening of Oct. 29 just south of Atlantic City, N.J., with catastrophic storm surges and maximum sustained winds of 81 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Peak lunar high tides, ferocious easterly winds and record-low barometric pressure near the storm center created ideal conditions for storm surges in excess of 10 to 12 feet near New York Harbor and on the west end of Long Island Sound, and from 5 to 8 feet from southern New Jersey to western Rhode Island.

As forecasts for prodigious surges hit the airwaves prior to Sandy’s arrival, anxious boat owners frantically called their marinas. Many boats had already been hauled and winterized, and many others were still commissioned and in the water. Marina owners swung into action, hauling and blocking some boats and securing others to floating and fixed docks. In the face of such a powerful storm, there was little else most marina owners could do. Photographs of boats in piles hit the media as early as Oct. 30, the day after the storm. Naturally, boat and marina owners were devastated.

CAT (catastrophe) response teams from BoatUS were on the scene within 24 hours of the storm, according to Beth Leonard, director of technical services for BoatUS in Alexandria, Va. The CAT teams remained in the field for two months, assessing the damage, processing claims, and studying the practices and procedures marinas employed or did not employ to mitigate losses.

The CAT teams found three marinas in the hardest-hit areas that had significantly less boat damage than their neighbors. The owners defied conventional thinking, trying what some might have considered radical storm tactics when the chips were down. Here are their stories.

Oceanport Landing

Oceanport, N.J., Shrewsbury River near Sandy Hook

Keith Seeley, 57, co-owner of Oceanport Landing, stood in front of his office and service shed and stared blankly at the high-water marks he’d just drawn on the exterior of the buildings. The predicted storm surge of 12 feet or more from Sandy would inundate his boatyard, most of which sits 7 feet above sea level. The buildings are just 2 feet higher. As Seeley visualized a nearly unprecedented high-water event, he knew he had a serious problem.

“We had a hurricane plan that involved hauling boats or double-tying them in the water, but when we saw that [the forecast] was really right, that the storm was actually making its illogical and absurd left-hand turn, we realized our regular hurricane plans wouldn’t work,” Seeley says. “It looked like we were really going to get it, and we did.”

Controlled chaos ensued. Hauling and blocking efforts continued at an even faster pace. Seeley’s wife, Carole, co-owner of the 85-slip marina since the couple began operating it in 1983, methodically removed all documents and computers from the office, getting everything to high ground with the help of friends. It was Oct. 28. Sandy would arrive in full fury the next day.

Seeley decided to leave the drain plugs in place on any boats that had them, the opposite of standard practices. “Salt water is really bad for the inside of boats,” Seeley says. “I didn’t want the boats to sink, but I didn’t want them wandering around, either.”

Racing against the clock, Seeley kept some of the yard crew on hauling detail, but he dispatched others to tie the 130 boats that were on the hard together into enormous raft-ups. He figured individual boats floating off jack stands would crash and bump until they sank, or they’d escape and head for England. A raft of boats, on the other hand, would give safety in numbers. To keep the boats from going on an undesired cruise, he and his crew tied them to the marina’s bulkhead, trees, telephone poles, bushes and buildings. The few big boats that were left in the water, including Seeley’s 41-foot Silverton, were secured with doubled lines and plenty of fenders.

marina2“Lines were run everywhere in the yard,” Seeley says. “It looked like a giant spider web. Some people came by and laughed at what we were doing, but I felt good about securing the boats the way I did.”

After doing a final walkthrough of the marina, Seeley and his wife drove to higher ground to stay with his brother until the storm passed. Sandy already was lashing the Jersey shore on the morning of Oct. 29, and conditions steadily worsened. “I went to bed that night thinking I was going to lose my house, my marina and my boat,” Seeley recalls.

He didn’t sleep much. At 3 a.m. Oct. 30, he got into his truck and drove toward the marina. The tide was on the ebb, and he wanted to assess the damage. Headlights cut through the black night. Power was out everywhere. The wind screamed. The truck shook. As he approached the road to the marina, a local cop pulled him over. The entire area was under mandatory evacuation orders. Seeley shouldn’t have been there.

Oceanport is a small town, and Seeley knew the cop. He told him where he was going.

“You don’t want to go down there, Keith,” the cop said.

“I do want to go.”

“You’re not going to like what you see.”

The cop reluctantly let Seeley proceed.

“When I got to the marina I couldn’t get in the driveway. Boats were piled up across the entrance,” Seeley says. “So I got out in my waders and went in on foot with a flashlight. The buildings were still there, and I saw that the boats were off the blocks and had floated around. None seemed to be missing, though.”

The day after the storm, Seeley says, he and his team got to work right away to clean up the mess. Miraculously, no boats were sunk or destroyed. None left the property, whereas some marina owners returned to find no boats or piles of wreckage. In one case, Seeley says, a boat was found five miles from its marina.

The extent of the boat damage at Oceanport Landing amounted to dings, twisted railings and scratched gelcoats. No prop shafts were even bent. The boats went up together, took a tethered cruise around the yard and came back down. The wave action chewed up the floats, but the fixed docks were relatively undamaged. The big boats in the slips came through “without a scratch,” including Seeley’s Silverton. Seeley’s house survived, too.

“As terrible as it seemed, we came through OK,” he says. “And yet … it’s never going to be like it was. Before, everyone was in denial that a storm like Sandy could happen here, but we saw that it could.”

Al Grover’s High & Dry Marina

Freeport, N.Y., Long Island’s South Shore

marina3Dante Grover, 52, owner of Al Grover’s High & Dry Marina, about six miles east of Far Rockaway, N.Y., slowly throttled the forklift forward against the tin wall of his 28,000-square-foot dry-stack warehouse. The fork was raised to about 15 feet, or half the height of the 30-foot-tall, 200-foot-long wall, and the forks were spread to the widest setting. Gusts exceeding 70 mph threatened to peel the wall away, and Grover was determined to save his building and the 140 powerboats stored on the racks inside.

Sheets of horizontal rain reduced visibility to zero. Grover could hear practically nothing but the roar of Sandy, even though the forklift’s diesel was usually loud enough to wake the dead. The wall in front of him billowed out like a sail when the hardest gusts hit as he inched the forklift forward until the forks were planted like buttresses to reinforce the tin sheeting. He shut down the engine, knowing there was nothing more he could do.

It was about 10 a.m., Oct. 29. For the past several days, Grover and his crew had been hauling boats non-stop in preparation for the storm. Every available space in the yard was filled, amounting to more than the 150 powerboats Grover usually stores outside during the winter. There wasn’t an inch of space left, so some boats were still on the floating docks, with anchors deployed as far out in the channel of Freeport Creek as possible. Great South Bay and Jones Inlet lay to the south. The storm surge was expected to exceed 11 feet.

Grover took a last look around. The entire area was under mandatory evacuation orders. He knew he should be heading for higher ground, but he didn’t want to leave the 140-slip marina he and his father had run since 1970. “At that point there was nothing else I could do,” Grover says. “The flood tide had reached its full height, about 7 feet above mean high water, or about a foot below what [Hurricane] Irene had been the year prior. I knew we had big problems.”

Grover says his marina sits 8 feet above sea level and that he did not expect the surge to reach 11 feet or more, but he also says he wasn’t taking any chances in case the worst happened, as it did. He blocked boats in the yard high on cement cinderblocks, as opposed to jack stands, which he says are boat punchers if the boats float free and then come back down in the wrong way. He also left the drain plugs in on all of the boats he hauled for the storm. “If you have the drain plug out, the boat floats for a little while and receives damage from impacts from hitting other boats and objects, and then it sinks,” Grover says. “Then it’s basically a total loss.”

Grover left the marina about 11 a.m. and went home, about six miles north of Freeport Creek. “It was eerie. The wind was roaring. Rain was blowing. Nobody was around,” he says. “I just kept thinking that we were going to have one hell of a mess in the morning.”

The next day, Grover discovered the extent of the mess. He says about 80 to 90 boats floated off the blocks and “went for a little ride.” A 36-foot Grady-White crashed through a cinderblock building. About 10 boats took a cruise through the fences adjacent to the property, but thankfully they didn’t go far. All of the buildings were flooded. The office had 5 feet of water in it, and about 3 feet of water entered the dry-stack warehouse, which lost roughly 50 feet of the wall where Grover had parked the forklift. No boats in the building were lost.

“It was surreal, like pictures you see of war zones. Our fences were pushed over. There were boats lying on top of each other. It was utter devastation,” Grover says. “It was almost incomprehensible.”

The boats that were blocked high and had the drain plugs in suffered only “scratches, dents and canvas damage,” he says. None was a total loss. Many of the boats that had been winterized and had the drain plugs out were total losses. In all, Grover says, he had roughly 70 percent fewer total losses than other marinas in the area.

Grover says he and his crew “worked like demons” and got the marina back up and running in about two weeks. “Next time I’d tie the boats together, put fenders out and block every single boat as close together as I could,” Grover says. “Then I’d tie the whole raft to a telephone pole.”

marina4Imperial Yacht Club

New Rochelle, N.Y., west end of Long Island Sound

John A. Giacobbe, 33, corporate counsel and manager of the Imperial Yacht Club, struggled to stand against the raging wind just after midnight Oct. 30. Sandy had shrieked ashore in New Jersey four hours earlier, and the surge at the far western end of Long Island Sound had come in strong at over 10 feet with the rising tide. Slack high water was at 12:11 a.m.

Some of the floating docks were up over the tops of the pilings, riding the special I-beams he had fabricated and installed after Hurricane Irene, which hit New York as a tropical storm in August 2011. Irene killed at least 45 people and caused more than $7.3 billion in damage, according to NOAA, and by all appearances Sandy was going to be much worse.

As terrible as Irene was, Giacobbe, in a sense, was grateful. The storm taught him valuable lessons. The marina, which sits 8 to 10 feet above sea level, may have been well protected behind Davenport Neck, but it was vulnerable to surge. The docks of Giacobbe’s 110-slip marina floated to within a foot of the top of the pilings during Irene. That prompted him to take preventive measures to guard against another surge event in the future.

The steel I-beams extended the “sticks” by 3 to 5 feet. They were designed with a taper to allow the bullrings at the end of each finger dock to easily slide from the piling, up the bar and then back down again. He also designed an anchoring system for the floats to keep them in place. It consisted of rings of chain fitted with sections of pipe that acted as rollers. The chain rollers were shackled in place on designated pilings under the bullrings. Then a heavy line was run from the chain roller to the main float and lashed using a hole drilled through the frame of the dock, avoiding the use of cleats, which “like to rip out,” Giacobbe says.

Little more than a year after Irene, Giacobbe was once again in a tempest, hoping and praying his marina would not be swept away. Because the power was out, everything was black except for the beams of the headlamps he and his crew were wearing. With 4 feet of water in the parking lot, Giacobbe had to use inflatables to access the docks. He knew that when the tide started to ebb he had to make sure the floats didn’t get hung up on the pilings. “We had to guide the docks back down over the I-beams with crowbars, making sure that the bullrings didn’t get snagged,” Giacobbe says. “The wind was so strong we could have been blown into the water.”

As the tide dropped, Giacobbe and his crew worked through the night. At dawn, he was able to see the flooding, which was extensive. Yet, in spite of the ferocity of the storm, his boats and docks came through largely unscathed. “It was just a matter of being prepared and a lot of luck, too,” Giacobbe says. We had the benefit of a natural breakwater that protected us. It stopped the waves. That really saved us.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue.

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