A firsthand look at Ike’s wrath in Texas

Posted on Written by Chris Landry

Hurricane caused $175 million in boat losses across the Lone Star State while destroying or damaging nearly 15,000 craft

With notebook in one hand and camera in the other, I stood on a mound of dirt at the Watergate Yachting Center in Kemah, Texas, wondering, “Where do I start?”

In front of me were the remnants of piers 10, 11 and 12 — piles of torn-up docks, half-sunken sailboats and bent-over masts. A crane had just lifted a 36-foot Pearson off the muddy bottom, and now pumps were belching out the water inside the vessel. A total loss, no doubt.

The gutted first-floor office of Lone Star Yacht Sales, a Bertram and Azimut dealership, was behind me. Electrical wires, a mangled air-conditioning duct and pink insulation drooped from the ceiling. A heap of bricks, crushed drywall and PVC piping sat in the center of the concrete floor. A steering wheel with the Azimut emblem in its center — and the office chair it sat on — appeared to be the only items not deformed, broken or torn.

Between the three-story office building and pier 11, a 1985 Hatteras — about 45 feet — lay on its starboard side, throwing a shadow into the room without walls. The hull and foredeck on the starboard bow had been ripped apart, exposing the deck’s wood core and the holes in the hull that once held the joint’s fasteners.

Three days on site
The scene summed up the type and extent of devastation Ike had inflicted on scores of marinas, boatyards and yacht clubs in southeast Texas. I saw the aftermath during a three-day stay in Texas.

BoatU.S. wanted to take a reporter into the mess to watch how its marine insurance catastrophe field team finds, recovers and assesses its hurricane-damaged boats. I traveled with Scott Croft, BoatU.S. assistant vice president of public relations, and Terri Parrow, vice president of Internet operations. We explored a half-dozen marinas and one yacht club in less than 48 hours. At each location, I scribbled down descriptions of what I saw, sought out interviews with owners of banged-up boats and snapped about 250 photos.

Ike barreled through Galveston Bay Sept. 13 as a Category 2 hurricane. The national death toll from the storm had reached 72 in early October, with 37 of those fatalities occurring in Texas. An estimated 4,000 people were rescued after the storm, but 400 people were still missing as of Oct. 8. More than a million people evacuated the Texas coast and, for a time, 2 million Texans were without power. Thousands of homes were destroyed and damage estimates were in the billions.

Close to 15,000 boats were damaged or destroyed, according to Jim Holler, BoatU.S. vice president of marine insurance. The hurricane caused $200 million in damages to boats, $175 million in Texas. By comparison, Hurricane Katrina resulted in $650 million to $750 million in boat damage, and 1992’s Hurricane Andrew caused $500 million.

It’s too early to put a dollar amount on the overall destruction Ike inflicted on the area, according to  Dewayne Hollin, a marine business management specialist with the Texas Sea Grant program. “The marinas are still scraping debris off the floor,” he says. However, of the 38 marinas in the Galveston and Clear Lake area, at least half received substantial damage that will keep them out of business for several months — if not longer. “This hurricane has probably had the most significant impact in the state’s history of recreational boating,” says Hollin. “The only other hurricane I can think of that comes close is Alicia in ’83.”

Ike hit Texas right where it hurts. Of the state’s 365 marinas, 110 are on the coast, says Hollin, who works closely with the state’s marina association. Galveston Bay and Clear Lake marinas hold about 10,000 boats, which is the highest concentration of recreational craft in the state, he says.

Dealers lose, too

Boat and engine dealers are suffering, too, says Ken Lovell, executive director of the Boating Trades Association of Metropolitan Houston. “I just haven’t been able to reach out and speak to many of our dealers yet,” says Lovell, whose Houston office had just reopened when I spoke to him by phone — 25 days after the storm.

Lovell says many dealers could be reached only by cell phone — like Bob Johnson, owner of Reynolds Marine in Baytown, Texas, a dealer for NauticStar bay boats and Evinrude and Yamaha outboards. Johnson estimates the hurricane caused $100,000 in damage to his property. The wind tore the walls from the frame of the 40-foot by 40-foot shop in which his technicians rig and repair outboards. “We didn’t lose any inventory, and I’m thankful for that,” says Johnson, who has run the business since 1993. “We’re back in business; we’re just working without a building right now.”

Insurance should pay for most of the repairs, says Johnson, who intends to spend some of his own money to improve the business. “I’m going to rebuild the shop and increase my inventory,” he says.

Cranes, barges, airbags

Gaining access to marinas would have been impossible without the BoatU.S. catastrophe team. The Hurricane Ike squad consisted of 11 surveyors, many of whom have worked in this capacity for more than 20 years. “It’s like getting the band back together,” says Rick Wilson, the “cat” team coordinator.

BoatU.S. team members inspected vessels at about 45 marinas and yacht clubs in and around the Houston, Clear Lake, Galveston and Port Arthur areas, says Wilson. BoatU.S. Insurance has received several hundred damage claims in Texas, and another 100 or so in 15 additional states. (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.) “People forget that Ike didn’t stop here in Texas,” said Wilson.

The team members must first find and tag the damaged BoatU.S.-insured vessels. This involves contacting marina personnel and then sniffing out the boats. The tags are essentially no-trespassing signs that identify the vessel as being insured with BoatU.S. and inspected by one of its surveyors. They carry the offer of a reward for those who report vandalism.

Eager salvors
Recovering the boat comes next. “Their goal is to find a single salvor who will assemble the necessary equipment [cranes, barges, air bags, towing vessels] to complete the job,” says Wilson.

That’s when things get tricky. The surveyors told me they must weed out the fly-by-night salvors — those with cranes too small for the job or equipment that is not readily available. “We constantly get approached by guys who say ‘You need salvage work? I have all the equipment,’ ” says surveyor Mike McCook, the team’s salvage coordinator. “But they don’t — or it’s three states away.”

One such salvor solicited us while we sat in traffic on the way to Galveston Island. The driver saw the BoatU.S. cat team identification sign on the side of our SUV. The driver lowered his window and repeated — word for word — what McCook had told me. Wilson, who was also in our car, politely told the man thanks, but no thanks.

Saying “no” is part of the job. So is diplomacy. Surveyor Jim Wood was assigned Bayland Park Marina, where a 300-pound boat owner had proclaimed himself the sheriff of the marina and was standing guard with a shotgun 24/7. Wood became friendly with the fellow and was allowed to roam freely around the grounds and identify BoatU.S.-insured vessels. Thanks to Wood, the “sheriff” gave us (me, Croft and Parrow) no trouble when we arrived to walk the marina grounds.

I was intrigued by the big man who felt obligated to protect the boats from vandals. Wood told me he lived aboard one of the storm-damaged boats. “Do you think I can talk to him?” I asked Wood.

“That’s not a good idea right now,” he replied. “He has a six-pack of beer in him and he has his shotgun.”

I agreed and headed off to take pictures of the 80 boats — and their docks — that Ike had lifted from the pilings and pushed a quarter-mile inland. The vessels — still tied in their slips — lay strewn across the road that leads to the marina.

“You can see the violence of the storm,” says McCook, pointing to the ripped up transom of a Sea Ray. “They didn’t just gently float in with the tide.”

Bad to worse

Despite their quarter-mile journey, the docks at Bayland Park were still in relatively good shape. Their concrete construction kept them in one piece.

This was not the case at Watergate. Ike completely destroyed 430 of 1,147 slips at Watergate, according to the center’s leasing agent, Sherrie Roy. All of the demolished docks were constructed of wood.

“I feel pretty overwhelmed,” says Roy. “Many, many people have lost their boats. The phone has been ringing off the hook with people wanting know about their boats.”

I asked Roy how she goes about telling boat owners their vessels failed to survive the storm. “Oh, you’re going to make me cry,” says Roy. “I tell them I’m sorry. There’s not a whole lot to say.”

Roy is friendly with many of the tenants. She also keeps her boat, a 1983 Ocean Alexander 43, at Watergate. “It’s on pier 17 — one pier away from the devastation. It’s OK.”

Surrounded by splintered docks and holed boats at Watergate, it was hard for me to believe any boat or marina escaped unscathed. But some did.

Bob Willett owns a boat that defied Ike. He had walked over from Waterford Harbor Marina, the marina next door. Unlike Watergate, this marina was built with tall pilings and floating docks. “I knew it was a good hurricane marina,” says Willett, who has kept his Hunter Passage 456 sailboat at Waterford for two years. “I put 30 lines on my boat. They were talking about a 20- to 25-foot surge,” he says. “I thought I would be looking for a new boat right now.”

Instead, he gazed at the ruined boats of others.

Open for business
David Foulkrod had read my reports from Texas on the Trade Only Today Web site in September, including the description of the destruction at Watergate Yachting Center. Foulkrod, president of Ship and Sail Marina Inc., which is part of the Waterford Harbor Marina, says he thought my coverage — and that of the media as a whole — concentrated too much on the damage and what appeared to be insurmountable challenges for the marine industry. “The impression you get from the media is that the whole area is devastated,” Foulkrod said in a telephone interview about a week after my visit. “We need to make people aware that a good percentage of the industry survived, and is up and running. My whole marina survived.”

The 45 slips Foulkrod leases from Waterford Harbor Marina are fine and so are the 42 boats in them, says Foulkrod, who pointed out that Ship and Sail is a dealer for Carver and Cruisers powerboats and Hunter and Jeanneau sailboats.

The Waterford marina, which includes 650 slips holding boats from 30 to 70 feet, was built in the mid-1980s with tall pilings — 16 feet above mean low-tide — and floating docks.

Flattened flybridges
Across Galveston Bay, about 40 miles southeast, the docks, pilings and covered slips at the Galveston Yacht Basin also fared relatively well, according to general manager Eddie Barr. “The marina itself held up — it’s the boats that received the worst damage,” he says.

The storm surge lifted boats and pinned them to the aluminum roofs that cover the lion’s share of the slips, flattening flybridges, crushing T-tops, and snapping antennas. When the water receded, the boats came down, many on top of one another or plopped onto concrete walkway piers. Others hung from their lifting slings in almost comical positions. I saw a Fish Master bay boat hanging by its outboard engine. The forward section from the bow to the center console was submerged. Another boat — a 23-foot walkaround — sank, rolled over and, when the water receded, came to rest upside down in its slings.

The docks and piers stood up well to Ike, but two aluminum boat sheds met their demise. A fire struck one of the sheds right before the storm hit. Barr says 130 small powerboats were destroyed. The fire actually turned them into blobs of melted fiberglass and metal. Ike pushed the other shed onto its side, crushing a trawler and an express fishing vessel forced from their berths. Inside, a 58-foot Hatteras was virtually untouched.

‘Worst since 1961’
Barr couldn’t say how many boats were damaged. “We have 500 slips and we were at 100 percent,” says the Galveston native, who called Ike the worst he’s seen since Carla in 1961. “We were 100 percent full before the storm and we will be 100 percent by summer,” Barr says. “I have tenants who don’t want to go anywhere.”

One such boater is Paul Wood, 62, the owner of a 65-foot McGregor, which looked as though it were parallel-parked against the seawall at the mouth of the basin. Wood, a retired naval architect, actually remained with his boat through the storm. “I stayed to adjust my lines,” says Wood. “When the eye wall came, I went into the cabin so I wouldn’t get hit with flying debris. But the whole fleet broke loose and came down on me. Some went over the [sea] wall.” The McGregor didn’t. The 1989 sailing vessel would have sunk if it hadn’t been pushed onto the dock below the sea wall. “She’s got a hole in the boat bigger than the pumps can handle,” says Wood. He remained optimistic, pointing out that the McGregor’s rigging was still in good shape and the rest of the damage was cosmetic.

Surrounded by wreckage, staying upbeat is a challenge, says Barr.

“You have to pick out targets each day,” he says. “If you focus on the big picture, it’ll overwhelm you.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue. 

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